Chai, like a sunset on a warm summer evening, is best savored in an unhurried way, preferably with others. It reveals more of its beauty if you stop what you’re doing and just listen to it. The zing of the ginger, the warmth of the black pepper, the perfume of the cardamom, clove, and cinnamon, and the richness of the milk seem to change in proportion with each sip. Although I haven’t figured out how to make a sunset, I can share with you, dear reader, a couple of approaches to preparing chai using a microwave. Using a microwave to make chai is a bit of a departure from the classical stovetop methods my Indian friends use but it is a necessary adaptation to bring this glorious drink to my stoveless office. As it turns out, there is no noticeable difference in flavor between the methods.
The little project to share masala chai with my friends at work has taken root. Since chai has so many ingredients, a lot of people can contribute to its preparation. For my colleagues and me, the making of chai itself is a fun break from our daily lives of process chemistry and engineering. When we make it, the heady aroma of warm spices fills the air and draws the curious to the little corner by the microwave outside our office area. We share what we have with whomever appears and enjoy it together. It’s a beautiful thing to share a beautiful thing with others.
A Brief Comment on the Development of the Recipe
Many chai recipes can be easily found by Googling. Others can be found by asking Desi friends. The ancestors of the recipes below are this Pakistani recipe and one from Falguni, a Gujarati-American friend of mine. I started from the former and experimented with many variables, including ratio of water to milk, fat content (including using half and half), spice proportions, particle size of spices, boiling time, cover or not, and timing of adding different ingredients. Falguni’s recipe revealed some subtleties to the timing of adding ingredients. She also uses different ingredients depending on the season, which opens another dimension of possibility. There are a lot of opportunities to play and experiment in making chai. We continue to do so. This base recipe reliably makes rich, spicy cups of chai. I hope you enjoy it and use it as a springboard for your own creativity.
What You’ll Need To Make Chai
- A microwave (I use one with a 1,200W max output)
- A microwave-safe glass measuring cup or other vessel with at least double the capacity you need (there’s a bit of foaming when the mixture boils)
- A microwave-safe cover for the measuring cup/vessel (designed for it or not)
- A sieve, ideally 3″ to sit on a mug, but any size can work
- A metal teaspoon for stirring
- 6 green cardamom pods
- 5 cloves
- 4 turns of fresh ground black pepper
- OPTIONAL: 3 thin slices of ginger (peel only if you feel like it). Ginger powder also works.
- 2 teaspoons of loose Assam black tea (or other black tea)
- 1 cinnamon stick OR a half a stick of canela (Mexican, or true cinnamon, seen posing next to my mug of chai in the photo above. I prefer its flavor. It is readily available in a Mexican grocery.)
- 3/4 cup water
- 3/4 cup whole milk or soy milk (Whole milk and soy milk make awesome chai. 2% is fine. I prefer no less than 2%, but no richer than whole milk. Enriching with half and half deadens the flavor and introduces a curdling problem.)
- Sugar to taste. I like three teaspoons of powdered jaggery in mine.
All of the spices and the tea can be obtained at reasonable prices at an Indian market or an international market. I’ve seen canela sold at my regular chain grocery store (Meijer) in the produce section, but I buy mine at the Mexican supermarket in town (Carneceria Guanajuato). For work, I bought an 8-cup Pyrex cup with lid and this sieve from Amazon.
Chai for One, Two, or a Few
- To a glass measuring cup, add water and all of the spices, and the tea.
- Cover and microwave on high until it boils. In my microwave, this is about 1 min 30 sec per serving.
- Crush the cardamom pods with the back of the spoon to release the seeds from the softened pods.
- Add milk and stir.
- Cover and microwave on high until it boils. In my microwave, if the milk is cold, it takes 2 min + 1 min per cup of liquid.
- Once it starts to boil steadily, reduce to 30% power and let it simmer for 4 minutes. You may have to reduce it further to keep it from boiling over, especially as the headspace in the vessel decreases.
- Filter the chai into mugs.
- OPTIONAL: add a thin slice or two of ginger (or grated) to each. Fresh ginger has a different flavor than either cooked or dried ginger and adds a drying sensation.
- OPTIONAL: crack open a new green cardamom pod per mug for extra perfume
- Add sugar to taste and enjoy.
Maximum Batch Size: The Stock Solution Approach
One of the great thing about working in chemistry and engineering is that there is no shortage of good ideas for process improvement. This stock solution idea came from Sarah, my friend and colleague who is more enthusiastic about chai than anyone I’ve met. We’ve found that making 8 cups of chai can take around 20 minutes from start to finish. Making a stock solution ahead of time not only results in a deep flavor but shortens the time from craving to savoring.
To prepare the stock solution, complete steps 1 – 3 from above. I’ve made fine chai from stock solution that sat over the weekend.
To make chai from stock solution:
- Fill mugs halfway with stock solution.
- Fill the mugs the rest of the way with milk.
- OPTIONAL: Add a thin ginger slice or two and the seeds from a cardamom pod into each mug.
- Add sugar to taste. Stir.
- Microwave on high until hot. In our microwave, this is about 2 min, but three servings were plenty hot in 5 min once.