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Image: Getty Images; design Archi Banal
Image: Getty Images; design Archi Banal

KaiNovember 13, 2023

PSA: Chai latte is not chai

Image: Getty Images; design Archi Banal
Image: Getty Images; design Archi Banal

Don’t be fooled by the unnaturally sweet, cinnamony, disappointingly one-dimensional drink that is chai’s namesake – it’s an impostor, writes Perzen Patel.

The first Saturday we moved into our new home, I went to my bare-ish backyard and plucked out the ornamental shrub the builder had planted. 

When the soil was loose, I dug six tiny holes and planted the six root cuttings of mint I had taken from Mum’s garden, patting them lovingly into place. Four years in, my herb garden has less of a mint plant and more of a mint “situation”. Sprigs of mint popping up near my thyme, rosemary, lemon and curry leaf as if it’s reminding me that I must add mint everywhere.

New sprigs of mint taking over all the other herbs! I couldn’t be happier. An endless amount of fresh, peppery mint to brew into my tea is what my chai dreams are made of. 

My mum’s backyard has a mint situation too. But that’s not what her chai dreams are made of. Whenever I go to her home – around the block from my place – I’ll find small bowls half-filled with either pieces of ginger or thick ginger peels. She’s one of those people who loves ginger everywhere – in her chai, in her juice and even in her cake!

For Mum, chai is not chai without ginger’s warm, spicy notes. And, while I love Mum’s gingery brew, no potluck at my house is complete without a request that my friend, Farzu, make us some chai. The request comes partly as an excuse to extend the fun a while longer but mostly because we love the heavy-on-lemongrass brew Farzu volunteers to make for us. 

But none of those chais will do on a cold, rainy evening. On those evenings, my Pavlovian brain forces me to indulge in hot, freshly fried bread pakora and only a chai laced with smoky green cardamom will do.

I’ve had thousands of cups of chai since I started drinking it when I was nine-ish. Sweet, diluted and milky when I was introduced to it as a girl. From a tea bag with dried mint leaves from the fridge during midnight study sessions. Spicy and earthy at a Dhaba stop in Punjab. Sickeningly sweet, with a hint of cardamom, from the chai-walla at my first job in India.

A chai-walla in New Delhi (Photo: Eye Ubiquitous/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

My favourite version? Minty, smoky, gingery and strong – the brew Mum makes for me when she senses I’m in need of some TLC. Her love, bottled up for me, in a hot steel flask.

And not one of them has ever tasted like a chai latte. Dial an Indian, and they’ll tell you that the unnaturally sweet, cinnamony, disappointingly one-dimensional drink that is chai’s namesake is an impostor.  Let’s call the drink a cinnamon latte, and I have no problems. It’s a perfectly nice drink, even with its syrupy after-taste. But calling it chai latte gets my hackles up.

Because chai latte is to chai what the radioactive orange butter chicken served at takeaways is to Delhi’s murgh makhani (the OG name for butter chicken). A weak, diluted counterpart.

I’ve learned that a good cup of chai is much like a pepeha. I’ve spent the last few years educating myself more on te ao Māori and one of the traditions I’ve adopted is to introduce myself with a pepeha. In the same way that a pepeha is used to establish connection and community, an offer to share a cup of chai is used to tell you a bit more about me.

Where I come from, the flavours that are important to me, the intention I’m putting into our relationship. Are you a friend for whom a teabag tea will do? Should I impress you by going out into my windy backyard and plucking out some mint? Or, do I love you enough to brew you chai from scratch in my aluminium chai kettle? 

I’m not trying to latte shame but chai latte, in contrast, only tells me one thing about you. That you’d rather not drink coffee.

The Indian way is to offer chai to anyone. At any time. Whether that’s morning, afternoon or twilight. Preferably, as soon as they enter your house/shop/office. It doesn’t matter if you’ve already had two cups. Chai is a ritual. A way to say, “You’re welcome here”. Or, “Stay a bit longer, won’t you”.

A tea shop in Varanasi (Photo: Marji Lang/LightRocket via Getty Images)

How to make masala chai at home

Ingredients (for 2)

Chai

  • 2½ cups water
  • 2 teaspoons chai masala (recipe below, or readymade)
  • optional: 5-6 mint leaves, 7-10cm piece lemongrass
  • 2 teaspoons good-quality black tea powder or 2 tea bags
  • milk (to your liking)
  • sugar (to your liking)

Chai masala

  • 4 green cardamom pods
  • 2 cloves
  • 2 peppercorns
  • 1 thick slice fresh ginger
  • 1-2cm piece cinnamon/cassia bark

Using a mortar and pestle or coffee grinder, make your chai masala. You can buy a readymade chai masala or multiply the quantities given here and make a bulk lot.

Add the water to a saucepan and bring it to a simmer. Mix in the chai masala, mint and lemongrass (if using). The chai masala ratio varies – I tend to go with 1 teaspoon: 1 cup water but you can also tone it down. 

Allow the water to come to a rolling boil. At this point, turn the heat down to medium and add in your tea, milk and sugar.

Bring the mixture to a second boil. 

Strain into teacups and enjoy with some hot snacks or crumbly biscuits.

Notes:

  • If you boil the tea for too long it will turn bitter.
  • The strength of your tea depends on when you add it and whether you’re making your tea with milk or water.
  • Tea powder is concentrated. If you’re using loose leaf assam tea, increase the quantity you add in.
  • Wagh Bakri, Society Tea and Tata Gold are my favourite Indian tea powder brands and widely available in Indian food stores.
Keep going!