Of all the Madrid cafes that I could have been standing in, I somehow ended up at Starbucks.
Study abroad kept me away from home for a few months, and I was craving familiarity in the form of a warm, comforting drink. I wanted chai, the Indian take on tea. Masala chai is a daily Indian ritual – one cup in the morning and one following the afternoon nap. This variation on black tea is enhanced by spices and sometimes ginger. At first sip, the masala provides a kick that is accompanied by a rich black tea flavor. It has become comfortably settled in Indian culture, an inherent routine that simply exists without question. And so, because my parents drank chai twice daily, it had been incorporated into my routine back home in the States.
The concept of chai has spread throughout the world, and the concoction is appealing because it is exotic and bold. Starbucks boasts its chai tea latte, but I had never tried it before because I could easily make a cup of chai at home. My mom taught me years ago, and from then on, I was officially the chai-maker on the weekends. However, Madrid, a truly spice-less place, didn’t have ingredients to make the masala. I didn’t have the slightest idea where to find cardamom or dry ginger powder. So I ventured to the nearest Starbucks on a rainy day and ordered a chai tea latte. The barista handed it to me with a grin that assured satisfaction and comfort in a cup and I responded with a truly gracious “muchas gracias.” And then I took a sip.
The still-hot drink promptly landed in the trash. Three euros wasted, but this chai tea latte was completely off. Watery and excessively sweet, with a completely incorrect spice blend, it was a far cry from actual, authentic chai. While I expected the frothed milk, as established by its “latte” status, it was completely unnecessary. The drink had more froth, water, and sugar than the satisfying drink that always gave me the energy I needed for the day at home.
Perhaps it was just the barista at that specific Starbucks in Madrid. Or maybe I was being unreasonable in expecting perfect chai. Regardless, I’ve found that the best cup of chai is one that can be tweaked to your version of perfection. So, if like me, you insist on authenticity, consider experimenting. The tea and the seemingly-complex masala are quite easy to make, and only a few steps are necessary to enjoy perfectly authentic Indian chai.
1 cup dry ginger powder
¼ cup cardamom powder
¼ cup black pepper powder
¼ cup cinnamon powder
Mix ingredients together. Make in bulk and store in a cool, dry place.
Chai, The Right Way
1 cup milk
1 cup water
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons loose leaf tea or 4 tea bags*
⅛ teaspoon chai masala
Add all ingredients to a small cooking pot (do not use a kettle) and bring to a boil. If you like a stronger gingery taste, grate in a little fresh ginger as well, but this is purely optional.
To keep the tea from rising in the pot and overflowing, turn down the heat as soon as it begins boiling. It’s ready once the concoction has turned a deep tan. Use a small strainer when pouring the tea into cups.
*Loose Assamese black tea is normally used, but if you live near an Indian supermarket, pick up a box of Wagh Bakhri tea for the best taste. Lipton and Red Rose bags are great if you’re using tea bags.
Photos by Rachel Wisniewski