The Mystery of Chai


Hello!  My journey to India is nearing and its time to get all my learnings and tastes on the food culture together.  I will be starting in Kerala and after a time journeying north to Delhi, Agar (of course) and Jaipur.  I will then conclude the trip in Bombay Mumbai (showing my age!) hopefully with a Bollywood glamour.  I’ve been reading all types of books–tour, cookery and history.  I need to remind myself that this is just the start as there are thousands of years of history and as many tastes from this incredible land.


Most of us at some point along the coffee road experiment with a chai.  Or as we say here in the states chai tea–which is a blend of black tea that is more steamed milk than tea, honey, and a "masala" of spices which vary from city to city and home to home.

Turns out that chai is a generic term for "tea" in many other Eastern languages, including Arabic, Persian, Kurdish, Urdu and Swahili, as well as in such non-Eastern languages as Greek (τσάι), Albanian (qaj), Russian (чай), Serbian (чај) or Slovak (čaj).Various forms of tea are available in India, the most famous being masala chai, masala being the pan-Indian, particularly North and East Indian word for spice, and the spice mixture is sold as chai masala. In India, chai is more popular than coffee and is offered on trains, and street vendors called chai wallahs

Pronounced like the ‘ch’ in chocolate and rhyming with "sky’" the food lore is that masala chai dates back to over 5000 years ago when the King of Siam created an herbal version for his court.  However, its history is probably  more  closely connected to the Hindu healing practice of Ayurvedic remedies where it is considered to be a cleansing and invigorating dose for minor ailments.

Preparations vary with proportions of spices, tea, sweetener and milk varying from region to region and even among families. Often the  family chai recipe is handed down through the generations. Some boil the tea, spices and milk; some never boil. Boiling verses adding the milk and spices to hot tea produces a different taste and character to the finished chai.

The combination of  spices and herbs used all add their own health benefits to the combination. Tea leaves provide antioxidants which are known to fight cancer-causing cells, lower cholesterol levels and reduce blood pressure. Cloves invigorate and help generate heat in the body, making them useful during the cold and flu season. Ginger strengthens and heals the digestive and respiratory systems, fight off colds and flu, removes congestion, sooths sore throats, and relieves body aches. Cinnamon acts as a stimulant to the other herbs and spices enabling them to work faster. Black pepper adds warmth to the body. Cardamom stimulates the mind and gives clarity. Fennel seed calms the digestive system. Nutmeg adds a rich flavor to the blend. Other spices include carob, vanilla and licorice; although not in the traditional recipes.

You won’t find the teapots of Britain  but instead unglazed terra cotta pots or saucers called "kullarhs," unglazed pots that impart an earthy flavor to the chai. Part of this "chai ritual" involves smashing the pots after drinking.

Today the taste of chai has inspired many recipes–a taste of the unusual.  And remember just call it chai.

A few weeks ago when it hit 95 degrees and all of us in San Francisco started to melt (really we have few places with A/C to retreat to!) I experimented with my standard chocolate sorbet recipe and married the chocolate with a chai base.  I found it had many healing properties.

Chai Chocolate Sorbet


3 1/2 cups chai tea (loose or bags)

1/4 cup sugar

8 oz. chopped bittersweet chocolate (such as Valhrona)

3/4 cup half & half

1 1/2 teaspoon fresh pressed ginger (you’ll use the "juice")

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves


In a 4 quart pot over high heat, stir chai tea and sugar until it boils.  Remove from heat. Whisk in chocolate, cover pot and let stand for 10 minutes allowing the chocolate to melt.  Uncover and whisk to blend.  Pour in half & half and the remaining spices and ginger juice.. Cover and chill for 4 hours or make 1 day ahead.

Freeze in an ice cream maker following your brand’s instructions.  Transfer sorbet to an airtight container and freeze until firm, about 3 hours.