Everyone associates India with chai. While there is no single recipe for chai, the flavors changing at every turn across the country, there is something of a base recipe. Chai uses CTC (cut, tear, curl) dust, rather than orthodox leaves, which creates an intense flavor that is tamed by the addition of milk and sugar. Chai is not steeped but is an infusion of milk and tea that is allowed to simmer away on the stove, making for a drink that is intense and dense. The addition of spices adds more layers to the flavor, which makes the chai more palatable. What sets some chai apart is this secret ratio and choice of spices.
Indian masala chai typically uses ginger, cloves, and cardamom. Saffron, nutmeg, fennel, black cardamom, cinnamon, and even black peppercorns make an appearance depending on which part of the country you are in and the predominant spice of the region. Chai has followed the Indian diaspora and can be found far and wide, where it is transformed more by local flavors and preferences. Take a look at some of the chais from around the world!
Home to the original chai, it’s a street drink, and an everyday beverage. CTC and even dust tea can make a great chai. Boiled with water, milk and sugar, it’s loaded with spices and consumed piping hot. In Kolkata, it’s served in little clay cups as matka chai, the perfect biodegradable cup for a takeaway. In Mumbai, it’s the cutting chai, pulled high and ‘cut’ to make two half cups. In the southern Malabari region, the Sulaimani or kattan chaya is the chai of choice, a lemon black tea that assumes gourmet proportions when you add some cardamom to it. Paired with a savory snack, they are the monsoon treats, and a muse to many a poet!
In the Kashmir Valley (India, Pakistan, Afghanistan)
In the cold of Kashmir, food preferences and practices are an interesting mix from many neighbors. Here, tea is brewed in a samovar, the Russian way of brewing a concentrated tea that is diluted with hot water before drinking. Through the Kashmir Valley, you can expect to encounter either the kahwa or noon chai. The kahwa has a green tea base colored and flavored with saffron and sliced almonds. The noon chai or sheer chai is also made from green tea leaves and cooked in a samovar. It is a pink-colored salty tea served with milk and nuts. Most say, it’s an acquired taste, especially if you expect chai to always taste sweet.
To make the noon chai, green tea leaves, milk, salt, and baking soda are usually cooked in a samovar. It’s the baking soda that gives it a pronounced pink color. The rule about salt over sugar is easily broken. For instance, in Pakistan, noon chai is made with sugar and nuts, and is served at feasts. Visitors to Kashmir can expect to enjoy noon chai at breakfast as an accompaniment to traditional breads.
Variations of noon chai extend into Afghanistan as the qaymaq. Green tea is boiled in water and baking soda added to it. Once it boils, the brew is aerated by pouring the mixture from a height. The baking soda gradually turns the color of the tea a dark red. The tea is returned to the stove and milk is now added followed by sugar and cardamom. The addition of milk turns the tea a pretty purple-pink. Just before serving, some clotted cream or qaymaq is heaped on the top.
The Himalayas (Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan)
“Have you had tea” is a greeting in Nepal. Something must not be well if your tea time is uninterrupted. Nepali chai is similar to masala chai in India ㄧ it involves boiling tea, water and milk to a dark reddish color. Spices added include cardamom, cloves, ginger and pepper. In parts of Nepal, near the border with Tibet, po cha replaces masala chai. Po cha uses yak butter with tea and water, to which salt, not sugar is added. It’s buttery, almost soupy to drink, and is the drink of choice in the high altitudes. Butter tea in Bhutan is suja, which translates as churned tea. Fermented yak butter is added to boiling water and tea. The flavoring of choice is salt, not sugar. The mixture is churned and added to a pot of boiling water and tea. Soupy like the po cha, it’s also churned into a frothy mix.
The Straits (Singapore, Malaysia)
Teh tarik is Malaysia’s national drink. The perfect breakfast in these parts would be roti canai with a mug of teh tarik to wash it down. Teh tarik uses condensed milk and tea and the mixture is pulled, rather dramatically, between two vessels, to create a frothy top layer, and also to mix the tea with the thick condensed milk. And no, it won’t work as well with plain milk or even cream.
In Singapore too, most kopitiams serves teh tarik. But if that is not available, you may want to try the yuanyang. It tastes like milk tea and is also called kopi cham. That should give you a clue! Yuanyang means a pair of mandarin ducks, a male and a female that pair off surprisingly well ㄧ just like this drink, which is roughly two parts sweet milk tea with one part coffee.
Far East (Hong Kong)
Hong Kong has an interesting connection with tea, an Anglo-Chinese legacy, as a former colony. The Nai Cha is the Hong Kong milk tea, made from black tea to which milk and sugar (or condensed milk) is added. The choice tea begins with base of Ceylon tea to which other teas are addedㄧeach tea maker has their own secret blend ㄧ and is placed in a cheesecloth bag, which is “cooked” and “pulled” in a tea kettle. The result is a thick black decoction to which condensed milk (black & white or longevity are popular brands) is added. Locals will insist that you cannot specify the amount of milk added, and that it’s a matter of trust. However, customers can choose to add as much sugar as they’d like.
Nai cha is a Hong Kong institution. Served in the cha chaan tengs, these are the local restaurants where you can stop for a quick bite, down some sweet milk tea, huddled around a table with a bunch of strangers, united by a love for nai cha. There are even competitions for the best Nai Cha!
PS: Also interesting is the other name for the nai cha – pantyhose tea or stocking tea, named so for the sock like filter used to “pull” the tea.
The Arabian Gulf (UAE)
Travelling westward, to what’s really coffee country, chai surprised by occupying a place of significance in the Arabian Gulf. Chai karak in the United Arab Emerites is a south Asian legacy, and an adaptation of the kadak chai or masala chai. Where the south Asian masala chai is packed with spices, the chai karak uses mainly cardamom. Black tea – CTC or dust is boiled in water with cardamom. Milk and sugar are added. While Dubai and Qatar are both significant global tea blending locations, the tea on the street remains the chai karak. Karak stops are famous and attract a loyal clientele. It is now possible to enjoy a chai karak with more custom spices, beyond cardamom.
Chai latte (UK and the USA)
And of course, there is chai latte, made famous by Starbucks, a milk tea version best known in the West. Unfortunately, this version of chai does not do the original proud. Excessively sweet, with an unsavory mix of spices, it lacks the warmth and the heart of its eastern counterparts. Chai latte may not unseat coffee, but two decades after it made its first appearance, you can walk in to almost any chain cafe and order one of these drinks, and that says something about its acceptance.