In the early 1900s, the British pushed the commercial sale of tea in India through their Indian Tea Association. They not only wanted Indians to drink more tea, they also wanted Indians to make tea precisely the way they did — a strong brew with little milk and sugar.
Demonstration was the best form of advertising and so the British went household to household to show Indians how tea should be made. To their dismay, the Indians decided to make it their own way, by flavoring their tea with spices and sugar and boiling the blend, which helpfully required the use of less tea. This spiced tea is what we know as masala chai.
Spiced milks are becoming popular now in North America, but they originated in ancient India, long before tea or chai were common. They are the earlier roots of masala chai. The British may not have gotten Indians to drink tea their way, but by the late 20th century, India was consuming 70% of the tea it produced.
Spices help you cool off and digest food, two good reasons why even on the hottest day, most Indians would not skip their hot masala chai. Masala chai varies quite a bit across India, especially the contents of the masala, or spice blend. In fact, every household has its own versions of various masalas. My mother's chai masala tastes very different from her sister's. In general, chai masala is made by grinding dry spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, pepper and cloves, adding each to taste.
I usually start my day with a cup of fresh ginger chai
, perhaps with mint in summer. When I want masala chai, I use a chai masala found in Indian grocery stores, or even black tea bags infused with the spices that you can find in any store.
It was both my daily chai habit and America’s love for sweet, iced tea in summer that got me dreaming of a Masala Chai Julep. The spices are cooling and complement bourbon perfectly. Masala tea bags are widely available — use whichever one you like the best. If you skip the bourbon, you have a delicious, non-alcoholic masala iced tea. In colder weather, use hot tea and skip the soda for a warm, masala chai toddy.
Masala Chai Julep Recipe
Yield: serves 1
2 oz bourbon
2 oz strong masala tea
1/2 teaspoon of sugar
dry soda to serve (I use Seattle’s DRY® sparkling soda, ginger or vanilla)
a bunch of fresh mint leaves
Steep masala tea bag in a half cup (4 oz) of boiling water. Remove bag after five minutes, stir in sugar, and cool the tea. Muddle a few mint leaves in a tumbler. Add ice, bourbon, chai, and stir. Top with soda, garnish with a sprig of mint, and serve immediately.
If serving more, consider making a simple chai syrup. Use a cup of hot water steeped with 3–4 masala tea bags (depending on their strength), add a cup of sugar, and reduce by half.
Use this chai syrup to experiment and make other drinks!