Make your own sweet and spicy masala chai
As a little girl I was nicknamed Sneezy. Unlike other names from the fairytales, this one annoyed me. Winter mornings were tedious and rather noisy in my household as I began each morning with literally 101 sneezes. My grandmother was an Ayurveda expert who loved weeding her vegetable patch at 4am, followed by sun salutations at 5am. Granny concocted a special drink for me to stop my morning splattering of germs and so began my addiction to the wonderful hot cuppa known as the masala chai — what I call the East’s answer to the morning coffee.
“Masala” means spice and “chai” or “cha” means brewed tea. For centuries, India has been the home of this aromatic concoction. Early-morning sing-song calls from chaiwallahs (tea vendors) lure many to the little tea stalls on the curbside, making them popular gathering places to discuss cricket scores and politics.
A typical masala chai is a blend of loose-leaf tea, sweetened full-cream milk and ground spices (chai masala). These spices include cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and freshly grated nutmeg. While families in India prefer to grind their own tailor-made mixes of spices, commercial varieties including liquid concentrates and powdered spice packages are readily available in healthfood stores, spice shops and most supermarkets.
Known for being one of the few strong spices that can be consumed directly, cinnamon bark has the quality of volatile oils and is used specifically as a cure for colds.
In addition to the great taste of this hot beverage, there are several therapeutic benefits to consuming a morning and evening mug of freshly brewed, aromatic masala chai. Both Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine emphasise strengthening the digestive fire to promote a smooth and healthy flow of energy in the body. This digestive fire is known as qi in Chinese and prana in Ayurveda.
These ancient holistic principles say healthy digestion is vital in body fat reduction and elimination of phlegm (termed kapha in Ayurveda) and excess fluid. It is the accumulation of excess fluid, phlegm and fats that leads to symptoms of dis-ease and all kinds of imbalances in the body.
In about 2000 scientific studies done in the recent past on the benefits of tea alone, it is agreed that black tea contains powerful antioxidants. Not only can a good masala chai cuppa be an everyday encounter with the exotic, it may also help fight and prevent diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s while lowering cholesterol and blood pressure. In addition, tea may:
- Alleviate bloating by stimulating bowel motion.
- Aid in weight control by stimulating metabolism
- Help restore mental alertness or wakefulness when experiencing fatigue or drowsiness
- Alleviate nausea, vomiting or dizziness associated with motion
- Boost the immune system
- Reduce stress as it soothes the nervous system
- Promote calmness and clarity
- Boost stamina
- Provide natural antioxidants
Medicinal benefits of chai spices
While the notion “great things in life are often unhealthy, expensive or illegal” holds true sometimes, fragrant chai spices can have a medicinal effect on the body.
Known for its intense aroma and a strong, unique taste, cardamom is also the most expensive of spices. It is available in whole pods (retains flavour longer) or ground to a powder.
Indian pharmacology regards cardamom as one of the main ingredients of medicinal preparations for obesity, indigestion, flatulence and congestion of the respiratory system, especially infection in the lungs or pulmonary tuberculosis. Cardamom is also used in Indian traditional healing as an antidote for snake and scorpion venom.
Known for being one of the few strong spices that can be consumed directly, cinnamon bark has the quality of volatile oils and is used specifically as a cure for colds. High in antioxidants and antimicrobial properties, it is a prime ingredient in fighting bad breath, treating toothache, staving off colds and treating digestive disorders. According to Chinese herbalists, chewing a tiny pinch of powdered cinnamon reduces phlegm in the respiratory passages and helps people with cold feet and hands.
Great for soothing toothaches, cloves are widely used as a carminative to improve peristalsis in the digestive system. Ayurveda and TCM use the warming effects of cloves to treat and balance qi or prana in the kidney, spleen and stomach. Interestingly, both Indian and Tibetan medicines also use clove oil topically for hypotonic muscles including in multiple sclerosis. It’s advisable to keep internal consumption of cloves to a minimum if the body type reflects pitta (fire) dominance.
If there is one herb that rules the Indian pharmacopoeia it is ginger — with a capital G. Not only does ginger root have a distinct aroma of freshness, it also has an overpowering taste, which is why it is frequently used to disguise unpleasant-tasting medicines.
Think motion sickness, morning sickness or nausea and the herb that springs to mind is ginger. Known for its carminative, analgesic, sedative, anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, ginger is effectively used in Asia for pregnancy-related and post-operative nausea.
An age-old cold remedy, ginger is also one of the best natural treatments for joint pain from arthritis and rheumatism. Other ailments treated with ginger root are asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory problems, loosening and expelling phlegm from the lungs. Ginger also helps break fevers by warming the body and increasing perspiration.
Used in small doses, nutmeg can reduce flatulence, aid digestion, improve appetite and treat diarrhoea, vomiting and nausea. Nutmeg is also used in treating fever, asthma and heart disease, digestive disorders, kidney disease and lymphatic ailments.
Brew your own
Often, the masala chai my grandmother brewed tasted different from the one my best friend’s grandmother made (not that our grannies were trying to outdo each other, ahem!). However, this was simply a result of how you grind and blend the spices. Not to mention how long the spices are stored in jars in the pantry. It’s advisable to make small quantities at a time so you have a supply of freshly ground spices to make that perfect cuppa.
There is no set way to prepare masala chai and you can have your own special version. The thing to remember is the basic ingredients are of good quality and as fresh as possible. There are four main components: tea leaves, milk, sugar and freshly ground or grated spices (don’t be put off by this ingredient as it is certainly not as complicated as it may sound).
Tea leaves Loose leaf tea is preferred, but teabags are also good. I recommend investing in a well-regarded brand to experience the appropriate grade of tea.
Milk For the authentic taste you’d find in a tea stall in India, I recommend full-cream milk as the richness of milk fat enhances the velvety texture of the beverage. However, for health reasons, a good brand of skim milk will taste almost as good. If you are lactose-intolerant, the best option is to use rice milk. Sadly, soymilk is not advisable as it truly ruins the taste of masala chai.
Sugar This is an optional ingredient depending on how health-conscious you are. That said, please note that masala chai tastes best when sweetened as it helps bring out the flavour of the spices. Use either raw sugar or honey.
Spices While there exists a plethora of spices for masala chai in the different states in India, the five common ones are cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, cloves and nutmeg. These spices are classified as “warm” as they promote healthy digestion and provide warmth in the nervous system, which is vital for boosting immunity. If you can only get hold of one of the five, make sure it’s cardamom. Cardamom can be used in a powdered form or whole.
Before you start to brew that delicious cuppa, grab a pot, strainer and a tablespoon.
If you want to unblock that stuffy nose, the best way is to follow the above method, but replace the spices with freshly diced ginger the size of your forefinger tip.
Voila! That was not hard at all, was it? It is so delicious it’s definitely hard to believe something this tasty can be good for you. I’m in the mood for my daily dose now. Chai anyone?