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Monday, May 18, 2009

Masala Chai - Indian Railroad Tea

Photo courtesy of Shrk

It took me YEARS to finally figure this one out. Tea is such a simple thing. You would think.

After I'm-not-kidding like 20 years of stumbling around and finally all but giving up, I finally figured out the secret to authentic Indian railroad tea.

It's using CHEAP TEA. The cheaper the better. CHEAP CHEAP CHEAP. The stuff that sells for like $4 a lb. Not that expensive Assam or Darjeeling that'll set you back $16 to $20 for 4 oz. CHEAP CHEAP CHEAP loose granulated (mamri-style) black unflavored tea, the kind of stuff that looks frighteningly like gunpowder.

You can buy this ultra cheap tea at any Indian grocery or online. But more on that later.

On to the Masala Chai Recipe!

First thing you should understand - chai is just the Hindi word for "tea". So if you ask for "chai tea" you are asking for tea tea. And if the brand of tea you are using is Tata, then Tata chai tea is the same as saying Tata Tea Tea. (Sorry, I can't resist puns and alliteration. Get used to it if you're going to read my blog, LOL!)

What we are talking about is spiced tea, or masala chai. Now there are a LOT of different ways to make this, and most are probably about as "authentic" as the next, but this recipe is my favorite. It tastes the most like the stuff the vendors hawk at the railroad stations and hand through the windows to travelers.

If you've been drinking "Chai tea" from Starbucks, or the stuff labeled "Chai" that comes in cartons at the yuppy organic groceries, be warned - that's not Indian Railroad Tea. It's not what most Indians I know think of when they talk about masala chai. That stuff has all sorts of extra ingredients like vanilla and cinnamon and who knows what else in it that you wouldn't find in Indian Railroad Tea because the watchword of the day is "tasty", yes, but also "CHEAP".

Chai WallahCHEAP CHEAP CHEAP. A category not to be achieved if you are loading the tea up with vanilla, cinnamon, ginger, and whatnot. Also it detracts from the simplicity of the recipe, which is another requirement for Indian Railroad Tea. These guys are (or at least used to be) brewing this stuff by the gallon right there by the railroad tracks, or at least as close to the station as they can get and not get arrested. Then they send runners out with trays and trays of the stuff, steaming hot, as the train pulls into the station. Then there's a mad flurry while competing runners (often from competing tea makers) jostle and jockey to be the first to sell out and run back for more. I've seen runners working in relays, where one guy pushes his way to the front of the crowd, empties his tray, and runs back to the back of the crowd to grab another trayful from a confederate, sort of like a bucket brigade only for tea. (Picture courtesy of Shabbir Siraj)

So anyway, quick, easy, tasty, and CHEAP are the watchwords for Indian railroad tea.

This is not your Starbucks Chai here. But it's REALLY REALLY good, and a heck of a lot cheaper than $6.75 a cup.

OK. Here's the recipe. Let me say right from the start, DO NOT try to substitute ground spices for the whole seed. You won't be able to strain it out and the proportions won't be right. Use the whole spices as indicated. You can substitute cardamom in the pod for the hulled cardamom, but I prefer to use the hulled variety (loose seed) because it's easier to deal with, cleaner, and generally cheaper ounce for ounce.

Masala Chai - Indian Railroad Tea

2 c water
2 c whole milk
1 T fennel seed
1 1/2 tsp whole hulled cardamom, or 6 to 8 bruised cardamom pods,
to taste
4 to 6 whole cloves
4 T Indian CTC mamri-style (granulated) loose tea, or 4 to 6 cheap
unflavored black tea bags
Sugar to taste


  1. Boil the water. Add the whole spices and leave at a slow boil for 3 minutes.
  2. Add the WHOLE milk and bring back to a slow boil.
  3. Add the tea or tea bags and boil on low for no more than 2 to 3 minutes. It can get bitter if you leave it on the heat longer than that.
  4. Remove from the stove, strain, and serve.
  5. Sugar to taste.

It's important to use a CHEAP granulated tea - for years I tried to make this using the best Darjeeling and Asaam teas that I could find and it never came out right. The cheap granulated tea (basically what we put in tea bags) is the key - it takes a strong flavored tea to stand up to the flavor imparted by the spices. This stuff will be labeled "CTC" or "mamri-style" tea.

The brand of mamri-style tea that I most often use is Brooke Bond Red Label. I've also occassionally used Brooke Bond Taj Mahal and Tea India. There are cheaper mamri-style teas and they work fine too, but be warned - you may need to experiment with the amount and the brewing length. Some teas costing as little as $2 a pound (454 grams is about a pound, that's a common size for Indian packaged teas) will quickly get bitter if you brew them too long. With cheaper teas you may need to cut brewing time (after you add the tea to the boiling water/milk) to 2 minutes instead of 3, and you may need to use a little more tea to make up for the shorter brewing time. Be prepared to experiment a bit.

Also, you do NOT allow this tea to steep. You brew it and then you strain it through a very fine strainer immediately upon removing it from the heat. Allowing it to steep will make it bitter.

Finally, if you can't find an authentic mamri-style tea, you can try cheap tea bags. Again, you may need to experiment a bit to get the flavor right. One of these days I'm going to buy some cheap decaf tea bags and try for a decaf version, because I have a sensitivity to caffeine and if I drink a whole quart of masala chai (which I will cheerfully do because the stuff is like liquid crack to me) I will be pinging off the ceiling for hours.

But I haven't gotten around to it yet.

Now, where to buy ingredients? You can buy from a local Indian Grocery or you can buy from an online source. I've often found the spices I need in Organic Groceries that have bulk spices for sale. You CAN buy the spices in any grocery store, but in the amounts used here you'll find them to be very very expensive. The mamri-style tea I've never found outside an Indian or International grocery.

To locate an Indian Grocery near you (in the USA): Indian Grocery Locator Indian Grocery Locator

And here are some online resources as well:
India Spice House
India Blend
Indian Foods Co

A Google search will probably turn up some more if you want to look around.

That's it! It took me longer to tell you how to make it than it will take you to actually make it.

Tasty, quick, simple, easy, and cheap. My favorite kind of recipe!


  1. Finally! I've tried making masala chai like 30 times in the past month or 2, and last week I came across this. I was using good darjeeling/sikkim tea, and was really confused with the recipes for the chai because the milk was so overpowering, but it was the tea that was so underpowered. Anyway I've tried a few times using tea bags because at the time I couldn't find mamri tea, and that was so much closer, and than I got some of that red bond stuff, which worked well and tasted and looked so much closer to the real thing, and this morning, I randomly looked in my bag of indian stuff and found what I thought before was spice, but it turns out it was ctc style darjeeling tea that a family told me to get, and I used that, and boiled it correctly (when I used red bond I never boiled it long enough), and today it tasted just as good as I remember!

    Anyway sorry for the blabble haha, just really excited that it worked(it's like crack to me too), and wanted to say thanks for finding out that it was the type of tea! and thanks for the recipe as well!

  2. This is fabulouis masala chai! I was browsing the internet for a good chai recipe and when I saw the photo you included, I was, like, "THAT's the chai I've been looking for!" Luckily, I had whole fennel, cardamom, and cloves on hand, and the results were excellent. Thanks for posting!

    I used cheese cloth to strain the tea, but I'm wondering - is there a special type of strainer you can buy? If so, where?

  3. Sorry for the long gap - I've had personal stuff going on, LOL! I got my very very fine mesh strainer at Target. You can probably find a very very fine mesh strainer at about any department store with a decent kitchen section (NOT Walmart or Kmart)

    Hope that's helpful, and again, sorry for the delay.

  4. Ah. LOVELY. Am just going off to make myself some, just now!


  5. Oh so delicious! Thanks! Take that, Starbucks, @@! Nice to know I'm not the only Indian food/Celtic music loving one out there! Hoping to buy a harp soon.


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