I never developed a taste for Indian masala chai while growing up. On those rare occasions when my mom had a free moment, she would relish a long-drawn sip of freshly-brewed masala chai, and I would watch her, puzzled. Indulging in this spiced Indian drink was emblematic of her relatively-carefree days as a nursing school student in India. This chai-sipping ritual transported her back to where she was born and raised. Images of the chai wallahs (vendors) and street scenes from Mumbai, I imagine, came sweeping over her.
Saying “chai tea” is redundant. Chai, in Hindi, means tea, so “chai tea” is essentially “tea tea.” When referring to this aromatic spiced tea, we call it “masala chai.” Masala means mix of spices.
Masala chai is consumed in India not only for its fragrance and flavor, but also for the medicinal and digestive properties of the spices used. Spiced teas and coffees are also common among other cultures around the world. Masala chai reminds me of coffee with hawaij, a similar spice mix commonly made by Yemenite Jews in Israel. There are two types of hawaij blends: one for Yemenite soup and one for coffee.
My mom uses whole pods of cardamom and fresh ginger in her chai. Though at times she uses their powdered versions, she never uses cinnamon. She was baffled when I mentioned cinnamon during a recent call to her in Israel. Using the powders results in a more pungent chai, while the cardamom pods and fresh ginger result in a more subtle and sophisticated, spiced cup of tea. She uses equal parts water and milk. The combination of spices used in chai varies from region to region, and often even from one household to the next.
In Kashmir, at the very north of the subcontinent, near Pakistan, they use special tea leaves that give the tea a pretty pinkish hue. The tea is called Noon tea, salty tea. It has a salty twist in addition to the sugar. They also add baking soda to it—maybe to make it froth?! Chopped pistachios, almonds and cashews among other tree nuts are then added on top to garnish the chai.
My mom also uses loose tea leaves imported to Israel from India. Hers is a strong black tea that can withstand the spices. It can be found in many of the local Indian groceries in the DC area. You can also buy black tea bags, such as Darjeeling, among others, in most supermarkets. I used what I had at home: my favorite Earl grey tea.
Growing up, on Passover, as on any Jewish holiday, our holiday table was graced with a feast of Indian food. Not just the everyday white basmati rice and a quick vegetarian curry, but celebratory, complex dishes like lamb biryani, a layered rice dish with lamb. Spring lamb orders were placed at the neighborhood butcher weeks ahead. Preparations, not only removing chametz, but also preparing the exotic dishes, were made days in advance. The spices, cloves, ginger and cardamom, perfuming the rice, which we eat on Passover, would linger in the air and on our palates.
Inspired by the flavors of our Indian holiday meals, and my chai-loving mom, I developed a masala chai ice cream as a Passover dessert. Even though the love for masala chai didn’t come to me as an adult, as happened with Brussels sprouts, in recent years I have developed a hankering for masala chai flavors in frozen dessert form. I used cloves and anise, in addition to ginger and cardamom, for a more robust and complex spice flavor. You can adjust the spices to your taste.
I could not have put it better than my husband did after he tasted a spoonful and then went back for more: “It doesn’t feel like what we know as ice cream, but more like a custard-based Indian dessert.”