Tea in O.C.: Malti Shah’s Masala Chai—and, Chai Masala

I like green tea, oolong, black. I’m a very ecumenical tea drinker, maybe even a little fanatical, and sort of newly open-minded about teapots (I wrote about that in Taste of Orange County last August.) I also love masala chai, the Indian tea brewed with milk and spices, though I never made it at home. It seems like one of those things better left to the experts.

But, recently Mona Shah-Anderson of Moxxe PR, O.C.-and-beyond restaurant publicist extraordinaire, happened to mention her mother’s masala chai, after which I’m afraid I hijacked the entire conversation. What were we talking about, anyway? After a bit, Mona said, politely, “You should really just have my mom make it for you!”

And so that is exactly what came to pass. Or, maybe it was my plan coming together. Either way, I joined Mona and her mom, Malti Shah, the other afternoon at the Mission Viejo home Mona shares with her husband, Paul Anderson, where Malti showed me her method. The prepared tea is masala chai—spiced tea in Hindi—while the spice mix itself is chai masala (Malti’s masala chai, and the formula for her spice mix, follow). She came to the U.S. in 1973 from the Indian state of Gujarat, and her chai is typically Gujarati. It uses some dried spices, and also fresh mint leaves and freshly grated ginger. Yes, aromatic. Malti drinks chai mornings and afternoons, as it goes with pretty much any tea tradition.

I am so happy that authentic masala chai joins my own rotating roster of tea. It’s simple, with a couple of tricks. Milk and water in roughly equal quantities are heated together, spices and tea (black, plus a little green—Malti brought fresh leaves from the tea shrub at her Claremont home, and I am SO putting one of those in my garden) are added. It’s important that the water and milk is hot before the fresh ginger is added. Everything’s kept at a lively simmer for a few minutes, followed by a couple minutes’ steeping (off the heat). Sugar can be added if desired. Voilà, masala chai.

Tea life, which was already pretty good, just got better.

A note on ingredients: You’ll find them at most Indian or Middle Eastern markets, and we have many here in O.C.—there’s always my beloved Mission Ranch Market in Mission Viejo. Pick up a fine-gauge tea strainer, too. Any of these places will carry Ahmad of London teas, which are reasonable and good—look for their Assam, and a very nice green. Another option is the bulk-spice departments of Mother’s, Whole Foods, or Sprouts markets.

Malti’s Masala Chai

(Makes 2 cups)

1 cup milk, nonfat, lowfat, or whole

1 cup water

2 tablespoons freshly grated ginger

Several fresh mint leaves

1 teaspoon Malti’s Chai Masala, recipe follows

3 teaspoons black tea

½ teaspoon green tea (or a few leaves of fresh)

Sugar, optional

Combine milk and water in saucepan deep enough to allow for boiling up. Bring to simmer, add ginger, mint leaves, chai masala, black and green teas. Simmer quickly, stirring, for about 3 minutes. Turn off heat, allow to steep 2 minutes. Sweeten with sugar if desired. Pour through fine strainer to serve.

Malti’s Chai Masala

4 tablespoons ground ginger

2 tablespoons ground cardamom

1 tablespoon ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Shake spices together in small, covered jar.

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