Chai simply means ‘tea.’ No two chai wallahs (tea makers) ever make chai the same way, although they share similarities in technique.
I learned how to make chai from two friends; one was a chai wallah who made the most luxurious chai with fennel and local cow’s milk. He was the only chai walla on his street.
The second friend has a chai shop in the Thardoling area of McLeod Ganj. His name is Kuldeep. When he makes his chai, he combines fennel and ginger with milk from his own cows to make a sweet soothing chai.
Here’s my version:
2 cups of water
¼ to ½ cup of sugar
1 tsp. of powdered cinnamon or an equivalent amount of cinnamon bark
1 tsp. of fennel seeds
20 green cardamom pods
2” piece of whole ginger, smashed
3 cups of milk
½ cup dried tea
1 tsp. vanilla (optional)
There’s a Method to This Madness
Bring the water and sugar to a boil . When it has boiled for a minute or two and the sugar is dissolved, turn the heat down to a simmer. Add the cinnamon, fennel, cloves, cardamom, and ginger. Turn the heat back up and boil the spices. According to my friends, this helps open the spices and intensify the flavors.
Add the milk, and again bring the whole mixture to a boil, being careful not to let it boil over. After the milk has boiled for a minute or two, turn the heat down to a simmer.
Add the tea and bring it to a boil. Here the heat helps to open the tea.
You’ll notice that the milk quickly turns tea colored. Turn the heat down to simmer and leave it for five to seven minutes. This slow cooking intensifies the flavor in the chai. Don’t be fooled, this is strong stuff.
This chai is delicious on its own or served with biscuits, such as shortbread, or savory flatbreads that have been deep-fried.