I conceived of this post as a starting point for all of you who love chai, that spicy and fragrant milky tea drunk across most of India and much of east Africa. I wanted to show you the five essential spices that, once procured, will help you make a delicious cup of spicy tea. But then I ran into difficulties. Chai comes in so many forms and flavors — I think I might start a minor tea war here if I prescribed only five spices.
So here then is a more free-flowing guide, with my own personal five favorites, other excellent choices, and the one absolutely essential spice for making chai that tastes like chai.
Yes, Chai Just Means Tea. We're Talking About Masala Chai.
You probably know that the word chai by itself just means "tea," and the spiced-up version of tea that has come be known by the word chai here in the U.S. is actually masala chai, implying tea with a mix of spices.
But I think in America "chai" overall isn't associated with plain tea; it's the catch-all name for this spicy tea and even just the spices themselves that make chai taste like chai.
So, what are those spices? What gives most masala chai its signature flavors?
The Essential Spice: Green Cardamom
When we talk about "chai-flavored" anything, in my opinion the dominant flavor we're really talking about is green cardamom. Intensely fragrant, with sharp vegetal notes of green spice and pepper, green cardamom pods are harvested earlier than black cardamom, which is muskier and more smoky.
Green cardamom is the base of most chai recipes that I am aware of. I like to buy green cardamom from the bulk bins at my local health food store, and I very lightly crack the pods before steeping them in the tea.
The Other Essentials (In My Humble Opionion)
After green cardamom the taste of chai can diverge in a few different directions. However, these four spices are perhaps most commonly used, and they form the base of the chai that I make the most:
- Cinnamon stick - For sweetness and warmth.
- Fennel seed - Offers a gentle anise or licorice note.
- Fresh ginger - Flavors the whole pot of tea with a fresher spice note.
- Black peppercorns - Gives the chai a spicy bite, which I love.
Clockwise starting from the ginger slices: Fresh ginger, whole cloves, whole coriander, black peppercorns, green cardamom, fennel seed, cinnamon stick, star anise.
Even More Options
But other spices also show up in chai mixes. Here are others I sometimes use:
- Whole cloves - Musky and strong.
- Coriander seeds - Sweet and mild, with a citrus note.
- Star anise - A darker, sweeter licorice flavor than the greener fennel seed.
Green cardamom forms the base of chai, but after that you could mix up nearly any of these spices and have yourself a fine cup. Personally I lean towards extra-spicy flavors with a strong dash of licorice or anise. Perhaps, though, you prefer the holiday baking aroma of cloves, or want to leave out all licorice notes and skip the fennel and star anise. Up to you!
The Best Sources for Chai Spices
I think of chai as a nice gateway to buying whole spices for the first time. If you're like me, you only bought ground spices in bottles until a really compelling project came along. For me, that was Indian cooking, particularly chai, and all of a sudden I was elbow-deep in a fresh supply of whole spices to explore.
But whole spices can be very expensive — unless you know where to look. Here are my favorite places to buy whole spices:
- From the bulk section: Many health food stores, co-ops, and gourmet groceries have bulk sections for spices and teas. I just stocked up on a lot of spices, including cardamom and peppercorns, and only spent a few dollars on my haul.
- From the Indian or Asian grocery: My other favorite place to buy spices, especially when I need a lot of them (my cumin seed habit requires supplies in pounds, not ounces), is the Indian grocery. You can buy a big bag of cardamom or other essential spices for reasonable prices.
Don't buy whole spices at the grocery store in the baking aisle. Those tiny jars with a few cinnamon sticks inside? Radically overpriced, compared to the sources above.
Ready for a Recipe?
Are you hankering for a hot cup of chai now? Me too. Here are a few good recipes; you can see the dominance of the green cardamom and the diversity of the supporting spices. Any one of these recipes will teach you how to blend your spices and get a pot of tea brewed up.
What do you put in your own chai? Do you have a signature blend? Did I miss any of your own favorite spices in this mix?
(Image credits: Faith Durand; Sara Kate Gillingham)