When selecting masala chai spices, it is wise to choose the freshest, organic, finest quality, whole spices available. From an Ayurvedic standpoint, high quality in a spice means that it is full of prana, or life-force. Using prana-full spices makes the chai come alive. Old, stale or powdered spices, on the other hand, will produce a lifeless end result.
Within a plant, prana is the living intelligence that is transferred to our body upon ingestion and digestion. This botanical intelligence is what communicates to our cellular intelligence how to go about healing itself. To protect the life- force of the spices, it is important to keep the spice intact, in its whole form, until it is placed into the simmering water that will extract its prana. The easiest way to do this is by purchasing whole spices instead of powder: fresh ginger root, whole cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks, peppercorns, and so on. When using spices that have been pulverized on the other side of the world months before and have been sitting on the shelf for just as long, this prana, along with flavor and healing potential, has escaped by the process of oxidation. For this reason it is also beneficial to store spices in airtight glass, porcelain or tin containers, preferably in a relatively cool, dark location in the kitchen.
The best tools to have are a mortar and pestle, an electric spice grinder and a coarse grater. Indian chai wallahs will often just use a rock to smash the spices. We have heard of sadhus, or wandering monks, who simply crush the spices in their teeth, but we do not recommend this. Personally, we use a coarse grater for the fresh ginger, the electric spice grinder for the hard cardamom pods and a mortar and pestle for everything else. Perhaps the most important benefit of processing the spices manually is that one’s own energy, or prana, is infused into the spices as they are crushed. This is where chai making can become an alchemical art, as one transmutes one’s chai into a golden prayer for friends and family.
Traditional masala chai spices help to increase the body’s prana in other ways. Ginger, cinnamon, cardamom and other chai spices support the function of the lungs, thereby allowing one to absorb more elemental air prana through the breath. In addition, almost all of the spices are digestives that help the body assimilate nutritive prana from food. And many of the warming chai spices act to burn up toxins in the body, thus clearing away unwanted sludge that impedes the flow of healing prana through the channels of the body. Honoring the prana and innate wisdom of the spices, therefore, is paramount as we prepare a deliciously healthy cup of masala chai.
Zingiber officinale • Sanskrit: Ardraka • Hindi: Adrak
Ginger has been used as a medicinal plant around the world since antiquity. Called the “universal medicine,” it is used in Ayurveda, traditional Chinese Medicine, and Western herbalism for a broad range of conditions. Ginger’s warming quality counteracts many cold-induced illnesses brought on during the winter and is a common home remedy for colds, flu, sore throat and sinus congestion. It can calm stomach nausea, vomiting and motion sickness, and it helps relieve intestinal gas and abdominal cramping, including menstrual cramps. We found it indispensable for these conditions while traveling in India and always carried it in our daypack, even eating it raw when necessary, as a first- aid treatment.
Ginger burns up mucus and congestion and acts as an expectorant for the lungs. It cleanses the body by burning up toxins or eliminating them through the skin by stimulating perspiration. By neutralizing toxins and promoting circulation, it helps treat rheumatic conditions and osteoarthritis as well.
Ginger is a powerful digestive because it stimulates saliva flow, ignites the digestive fire and tones the stomach. My ayurvedic teacher, Dr. Vasant Lad, suggests enjoying a thin slice of ginger with a few drops of lime juice and a pinch of mineral salt before eating to kindle digestion. As an entire medicine chest in one plant, it is a good idea to always have some on hand in your home.
Ginger is the primary spice in masala chai. The fresh root (actually a rhizome) is available at most supermarkets. As a general rule, a root that is compact and bright yellow on the inside will be spicier and stronger tasting than the large, watery, pale-looking variety. To use it, grate, smash or thinly slice the fresh root and add it to the simmering masala. Using a coarse grater is the simplest method, and there is no need to peel it. For an extra-spicy chai, grate and squeeze some fresh ginger juice into each cup. In a pinch, you can use dried ginger; but the whole, fresh ginger root will offer the best flavor.
Elettaria cardamomum • Sanskrit: Ela • Hindi: Choti elaichi
Cardamom is equal in standing to ginger as a classic masala chai spice. Even if you use only these two spices in your chai, you can create a tasty, well-balanced brew. Cardamom is traditionally used to improve one’s taste sensation. Added to chai, it can open your taste buds, allowing you to truly appreciate a delicious batch of chai. It also counteracts the mucus-forming properties of milk, making it a balancing addition to a milky chai with the added benefit of freshening the breath.
Cardamom is useful for those suffering from asthma, breathlessness or bronchitis. It is also used to alleviate colds and cough and as an expectorant to expel phlegm. Cardamom is recommended as an herbal remedy for many symptoms of digestive upset, including indigestion, nausea, vomiting, belching, flatulence, bloating, colic and acid reflux.
For the best-tasting masala chai, use whole, plump, green cardamom pods. The whole pod can be ground up in a spice or coffee grinder. When using a mortar and pestle, smash the pods, remove the brown seeds from within and grind them to a powder. The green shells can either be tossed in the pot or discarded. If you cannot find the whole pods, the decorticated seeds (pod removed) can be used but may lack the fresh flavor of the sealed pod. It is not worth buying the powder, because it oxidizes quickly after being ground and has already lost its potency on the shelf. I have found that it is best not to boil the cardamom but to add it to the masala after turning off the heat and letting it steep. The volatile oils, and with them the flavor and medicinal value, diminish with boiling.
Cinnamomum zeylanicum / Cinnamomum cassia • Sanskrit: Tvak • Hindi: Dalchini
Cinnamon is called tvak in Sanskrit, which literally means “skin,” because it is obtained by peeling off the sweet inner bark, or skin, of the tree. Like many other chai spices, cinnamon’s warming nature aids digestion and is traditionally used for a variety of stomach and intestinal imbalances such as indigestion, nausea, gas, vomiting and diarrhea. As a home remedy, it can be made into a tea or added to food to improve circulation and relieve a general feeling of coldness. It can also alleviate menstrual pain, abdominal cramping and muscle spasms.
Cinnamon warms the internal body and is used medicinally in Ayurveda as a general tonic for the organs and to increase vitality. It warms the kidneys, strengthens the adrenals and the heart, and purifies the blood. Acting as an expectorant on the lungs, it is useful for coughs, congestion and asthma. Cinnamon is considered an aphrodisiac and is used to alleviate male sexual debility.
There is a significant difference between what is called “true cinnamon” or “Ceylon cinnamon” and its relative cassia bark, commonly referred to as cinnamon in North America. True cinnamon has a sweet, subtle flavor, while cassia’s taste is strong, pungent and even peppery. One can identify Ceylon cinnamon by its soft, tan, multi-layered stick that is easy to break up by hand. Cassia, on the other hand, is very hard and reddish brown in color and consists of a single thick quill of bark.
The flavor of cassia cinnamon can be overpowering and can easily dominate a masala chai if too much is used. Using just a little as an accent, however, adds a wonderful taste. We prefer the delicate taste of Ceylon cinnamon in our masala chai. When adding cinnamon to chai, it is better to use the stick than the powder. The stick will give your chai a richer taste and prevent it from becoming “muddy,” which happens when fine cinnamon powder does not thoroughly strain out.
Foeniculum vulgaris • Sanskrit: Shatapushpa • Hindi: Saunf
Fennel is a gentle home remedy useful for many stomach and intestinal discomforts. It can be used safely by children and the elderly for gas, cramps, indigestion, abdominal pains and gastrointestinal spasms. It is an indispensable herb for nursing mothers and babies because it both promotes lactation and soothes colic. At Indian restaurants, one usually encounters a bowl of roasted fennel seeds at the exit so that after indulging, a spoonful can be chewed to aid digestion and help prevent gas formation. You can easily roast your own at home and keep them out to munch any time to gently warm your digestive fire. Simply dry roast the seeds in a skillet until they are slightly browned and you begin to smell the medicinal aroma. Fennel makes a delicious after-dinner tea, on its own or with a little fresh ginger.
Fennel is an amiable component to add to just about any masala chai recipe because it offers a delicate hint of licorice flavor that will never overpower. And because fennel is not hot, like many other chai spices, it is the perfect flavorful addition to a summer chai or a children’s masala. It has become a mainstay in our house chai since the birth of our daughter to help keep “mother’s milk” flowing. The seeds are soft, so you can either toss them into your masala whole, or crush them a little in a mortar with a pestle to unlock the flavor.
Caryophyllus aromaticus • Sanskrit: Lavanga • Hindi: Laung
Clove is a dried flower bud picked from a tropical evergreen tree. Traditionally, it is chewed whole after a meal to freshen the breath and stimulate digestion. It can also be taken as a tea for nausea, indigestion or gas. Mixed with honey it is used to alleviate colds and cough. Spicy clove is commonly added to aphrodisiac concoctions.
Clove has a strong, pungent, somewhat bitter flavor that can easily override the other spices in a batch of chai. For a balanced masala chai, start with one or two cloves at first, then add more if you like, to taste. Clove is a very hot spice, so leave it out during the summer months or if you have excess heat in your system.
Piper nigrum • Sanskrit: Maricha • Hindi: Kali Mirch
Black pepper is native to the Malabar region of South India. For thousands of years, it has been the world’s most popular and widely traded spice. In fact, the Americas were accidentally “discovered” by Europeans while looking for a more direct route to secure their beloved pepper.
In Sanskrit, black pepper is called maricha, a name for the Sun, because of the tiny fruit’s ability to store such immense heat. This fire is pepper’s gift to the human body. It improves digestive strength, stimulates metabolism, burns up toxins, and destroys parasites and worms. It also helps to dry and expectorate mucus in the lungs, and dries up mucus in the sinuses and throat.
Black pepper can seriously pep up your chai. If you are running low on ginger, a few peppercorns can easily bring up the heat level. Be careful, though, not to create a masala chai that is too hot to drink! As with all spices, for the freshest flavor, grind the whole peppercorns just before adding them to the masala.
Pimento officinalis • Hindi: Kebab Cheeni
Allspice, also called pimento, is native to Central and South America and the Caribbean. More recently, it has been cultivated in India, though it is not a traditional Indian masala chai spice. Like its name suggests, allspice possesses the flavors of an entire chai masala in one extraordinary dried evergreen berry. Notes of ginger, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and pepper are discernible in the aroma and on the palate, while allspice offers its own distinct flavor that is a synergism of all of these. As a pungent spice, it is warming to the body and aids circulation and digestion.
Allspice is an enigmatic accent to the traditional Eastern spices used to make masala chai. It can also be used as a substitute for any one of the spice flavors it encapsulates. To use, grind the whole dried berry with a mortar and pestle. Jamaican allspice is renowned as the best.
Myristica fragrens • Sanskrit: Jatiphala • Hindi: Jaiphal
Nutmeg is actually a seed, not a nut, but it offers a slightly sweet, nutty flavor. It contains sedative properties that relax the mind, making it a beneficial supplement to your hot milk at bedtime. It also serves to increase appetite and improve digestion. According to Ayurveda, nutmeg is yet another aphrodisiac masala chai spice that works in two ways: it acts as a sexual stimulant as well as preventing premature climax. Again, perfect for some in a nighttime spiced milk.
Just a little bit of freshly grated nutmeg powder in your masala chai brings out an aromatic freshness and grounding nut flavor. You can either simmer it with the masala or grind a pinch of powder on the bottom of each cup and pour the chai over it.
Crocus sativus • Sanskrit: Nagakeshana • Hindi: Kesar
Saffron is the dried golden-red stigma of the purple saffron crocus. Each flower contains only three stigmas and must be individually hand- harvested when it first blooms in autumn. This small yield and labor- intensive collecting process makes saffron the most expensive spice in the world. Ayurveda considers saffron to be a sattvic herb, meaning its energy is pure, promoting clarity in the mind and heart of one who ingests it. As an herbal medicine, saffron rejuvenates and cools the blood, making it useful for soothing inflammatory conditions. Being a sexual organ itself, its medicine acts to balance the reproductive system. Traditionally it is used to treat infertility, impotence and to regulate menstruation. Pregnant women, however, should avoid it.
Saffron has the aroma of hay dipped in honey. Its flavor is subtle but quite potent, so a little goes a long way. Only several strands are needed to enliven a batch of chai with the fresh taste that can only come from such a delicate floral substance. It offers a high octave bouquet of ethereal essence that can balance out the harsh, bitter tones of black tea, thus creating a full-spectrum masala chai.
I find the best way to use saffron in chai is to steep it separately in the hot milk while the other spices are simmering in the water. Its color will suffuse the milk, imparting a royal yellow color. You can also place a strand on the bottom of the cup and ladle the chai over the saffron, or simply garnish with a thread or two on top.
Ocimum sanctum • Sanskrit: Tulasi • Hindi: Tulsi
Tulsi, also known as holy basil, is a sacred medicinal plant revered as a goddess throughout India. So with respect, I will refer to her in the feminine. Her healing powers extend beyond her use in tea, as her very presence is believed to bestow protection and well-being. In the courtyards of Hindu homes we visited, there was often a Tulsi plant in a prominent location enthroned on a decorated clay pedestal. Tulsi’s woody stems are made into japa malas, or prayer beads, which are said to purify the body and mind of the wearer and fill him or her with bhakti, devout love for the Divine. Tulsi’s leaves or sweet-scented flowers accompany all ritual offerings made to Lord Vishnu and his incarnation, Krishna. In fact, each year the festival of Tulsi Vivah celebrates the marriage of Tulsi with Vishnu and starts off the wedding season throughout India.
Tulsi is a curative panacea of the plant world. In India, Tulsi is commonly taken for colds, coughs, flu and fever. Tulsi acts as a powerful adaptogen, assisting the body in maintaining homeostasis when faced with stressful influences, whether physical, psychological or environmental, like pollution or exposure to pathogens. Tulsi empowers the body with physical stamina, strengthens immune function and offers a generous supply of antioxidants. She enhances digestion and assists in the absorption of nutrients from food or other herbs. Tulsi also supports the function of the heart, lungs and liver.
If you live in a warm region or have ample sunlight in your home, it is easy to propagate Tulsi, both for her sacred ambience and to pluck a few leaves each day to steep in your masala chai. A leaf can also be placed on top of a fresh cup of chai as a goddess garnish suitable for the Supreme Being. If you do not have fresh Tulsi, you can infuse the dried leaves or powder into your masala. Because Tulsi energizes the body while at the same time calming the mind, she is well suited for a wholesome, caffeine-free masala. Dried Tulsi is available at Indian grocers and from Ayurvedic herb suppliers like Organic India and Banyan Botanicals.