Chai is a spicy, sweetened 'milk tea' that originated in India and has long been enjoyed by travelers throughout the world. Traditionally, a blend of aromatic spices and loose leaf tea is simmered in water to create a spicy base and then milk is added to the spicy infusion. Sometimes families combine the milk, water, and spices in one pot and simply allow the large pot to simmer for hours.
Why Does Chai Taste Different in India?
Chai served abroad may differ greatly from the taste of the beverage Americans have come to know as chai, 'chai tea' or 'chai latte' served in coffee shop chains. In the tropics, fresh cow's milk like we have in the US or Europe is not as accessible, so canned evaporated milk or sweetened condensed milk is often used. Canned milk has a pleasant caramel-like taste that adds another flavor dimension to Indian chai. If fresh milk is used, it's likely from a water buffalo which produce a very rich, creamy milk. Additionally, Indian chai may also be made with jaggery — a less refined sugar, that has a taste similar to light brown sugar.
If you enjoyed the flavor of chai during your travels to India, you can try using evaporated milk in place of fresh milk and add sugar or brown sugar to taste; or use sweetened condensed milk and omit the sugar. Sometimes I purposely blend evaporated milk with whole fresh milk to give the 'body' of the chai more substance and a deeper flavor.
Chai Sweetness — It's Your Call
Chai is traditionally a sweet beverage. The palate for sweetness varies considerably between American and Indians. Indians enjoy sugar and 'the sweeter the better' which is very different from many Americans who prefer less sugar and sweetness in their desserts and beverages, or wish to eliminate it completely from their diets. Part of the preference for sweet, milky drinks in India is due to the highly spiced food and hot curries they enjoy. Milk and sugar 'cool' the effects of hot chilies and spices in the mouth.
There is also a big difference in the way Indian families make chai and how a street vendor (called a 'chai wallah') makes it. A chai wallah is kind of like a coffee 'barista' who makes chai instead. You've probably seen films showing chai being poured from pan-to-pan from greater and greater heights to aerate it which gives it a creamier, lighter texture. Home-style chai is more likely to be simply simmered without much additional fuss.
We suggest whisking the chai mixture continuously while heating the milk or milk and water mixture for creamier cup of chai. Another way to add this special 'latte' touch to chai is to use a milk frother wand before serving to create an ethereally light and delightful beverage.
We encourage you to experiment and to create your own signature chai. If your preference is to use soy, coconut, almond, or rice milk instead of whole dairy milk, use it! (For more 'watery' dairy replacements, use it full strength without diluting.) If you enjoy a spicy chai, simply add a bit more spice mixture and simmer the chai slightly longer. For the chai spice blends with ginger, add a few slices of fresh ginger to the milk mixture as you are heating it.
Our Chai Recipe
Brew delicious chai your way. Use dairy or non-dairy milk substitute and sweetener of your choice. Our recipe below is for one generous mug.
2 cups whole milk (or half milk and half water*) or dairy replacement
1 rounded tablespoon chai spice blend of your choice**
1-2 tablespoons sugar (or sweetener of your choice)
Garnish with pinch of ground cinnamon or cardamom, if desired
In a saucepan, combine milk and 1 rounded tablespoon chai mix.** Bring mixture to a boil, whisking briskly.*** Reduce heat and simmer 5-7 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons sugar, or to taste. Pour through a fine mesh strainer into mugs. If desired, finish with a very light dusting of cinnamon or cardamom.
*If you like a rich, smooth chai, use whole milk. We like to use whole milk during the colder winter months. In the summer, we make a lighter style of chai with a little water added which makes it nice for iced chai. If you are using a milk replacement such as a nut based milk, use it full strength — don't dilute with water.
**Gently shake or turn canister a few times to redistribute spices before measuring spices.
***We love the creamy, 'latte' style of chai. Whisking continuously during the entire cooking time is one way to achieve this light aerated style chai. Another way to achieve a light foamy texture is using a battery operated, handheld milk frother like this.