Masala Chai

The village where my mother grew up, Addalapalem, remains suspended in time. For years, there were two landlines in the 'neighborhood'. When we visited as I was growing up, we were truly off the grid. I loved it. We visited every 2-3 years, and in my childhood, this wasn't enough. Palm trees, canals, neighbors mud huts, and other neighbors roofs were a playground for my cousins and I. Brooms, chalk, and dried beans were our toys. I cried at the end of every summer when we left. We were surrounded by people at all times - my aunts, uncles, and neighbors would sit in woven lounge chairs on the veranda looking out at the canal, and talk. They would chat from the moment the sun came up as they made idlis and dosas, and far past the moment when the sun went down. Some of my favorite memories are sitting on the ground in the afternoon, playing with my cousins while our parents chattered away and sipped masala chai. 

Now, as an adult, these remain my most cherished moments when I visit India. No longer am I playing on the ground with makeshift toys, but instead, slowly sipping masala chai in the mid-afternoon, in the languid heat under a whirring fan. Vacation is truly restful in my mother's village - the object of each day is to rest, eat, and catch up with family. Whenever I take the time to make my own masala chai here in San Francisco, those memories flood my mind. I'll be returning to Addalapalem again this November, this time taking my husband with me. Many slow afternoons sipping on masala chai await us. Until then, our living room will do. 

South Indians like their tea milky and sugary. I can't say I disagree. I usually replace the whole milk with almond milk, and sometimes choose honey or maple syrup over brown sugar. My chai is much stronger on the cardamom/cinnamon side, because those are just my preferences! Play around with the recipe and find a blend that works for you. 


masala (spice blend)

7 cardamom pods

3 whole cloves

2" cinnamon stick

1" piece ginger

3 black peppercorns


2 cups water

1 1/2 cup whole milk OR almond milk

1 1/2 tbsp loose black tea (I use Assam - follow brand's directions for amount/2 cups water - varies per tea)

2 tbsp high quality brown sugar, like Demerera - or your sweetener of choice


In a mortar and pestle, or coffee/spice grinder, coarsley grind together the cardamom, cinnamon stick, pepercorns, and cloves. If using a grinder, just 3-4 pulses will get you the coarse consistency needed. 

Bring water to a boil. Add the masala (the spice blend you just made!) and ginger. Turn the heat to low, and let simmer for 7-9 minutes. Bring the water back to a boil, remove from heat, and add desired amount of tea. Cover and let steep.

*You'll want to make the tea a bit stronger than you'd like it, since you'll be adding milk next. (I use 1 1/2 tbsp of Assam black tea for 2 cups of water, let steep for 3 minutes, and then add 1 1/2 cup of milk. Again this varies on which tea you purchase.)

Add milk and sugar, stir well. Place back on heat and simmer on low for 2-3 minutes. *a note: low-fat milk will curdle faster than whole. 

Pour tea through fine mesh sieve and serve. Makes 2 large cups of tea.

I love multiplying the recipe, and making a big batch of this at the beginning of the week. If you're planning on saving it for the week, just add milk and sugar, stir and strain. Warm gently over the stove right before use!