The new year brings a groundswell of change, a clean slate for experimentation, and fresh starts fueled by innumerable cups of caffeinated beverages, so it serves us well to ground ourselves in familiarity. Raina and her husband, Furman University professor Dr. Karni Bhati, natives of Jodhpur, India, share with us their daily ritual for masala chai, the traditional South Asian spiced beverage.
As with all personal rituals, the exact recipe and method have taken on the personality of the Bhatis. “Everybody has their own way,” Raina says. The exact spice blends and quantities vary depending on individual tastes and desired medicinal properties. The spice mixture, called karha, typically consists of ground ginger and cardamom. Coriander, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and star anise can all make appearances. “You also improvise with what you have,” says Raina.
Drip coffee to-go has its place, but it’s equally as valuable to enjoy a respite from life’s hectic pace. The ritual of making tea, measured in grating, grinding, boiling, pouring, and sipping, serves as moments stolen for ourselves.
TRADITIONAL MASALA CHAI
4 slices, cross-wise, of fresh ginger
1 pinch ginger powder
2 pods of cardamom seeds
1 Tbsp black tea leaves, typically Assam
1 cup 2% milk
2 cups water
Honey or sugar to taste
Add the ginger powder, cloves, peppercorns, cardamom seeds, and any other additional spices into a mortar. Crush into a fine powder and set aside. Crush the fresh ginger root in the mortar. The process should yield ginger juice.
Heat the milk and water in a pot and bring to a slow boil. While Raina lets the liquid boil undisturbed, Karni ladles the liquid to quicken the boiling process and to judge when it is properly boiled: “Once it’s at a real boil, it sounds different. There is a deeper quality. It sounds flat when it’s not properly boiled,” he says.
Drain the ginger juice into the pot. Squeeze any excess juice from the crushed ginger before adding it into the pot. “Sometimes you don’t have control over the quality of thefresh ginger, and if the milk isn’t properly boiled, it will curdle when the ginger is added,” says Raina.
Add the powdered spices and stir. Remove from heat, add tea leaves, and cover the pot. “The idea is to saturate the milk and water with spices before the subtler flavors of tea are added,” says Karni.
Let steep for about three minutes. Sweeten to taste with honey or sugar. Strain into a pot or directly into cups to serve. Pair with savory fritters or cookies for a teatime snack.