Masala chai is the quintessential fragrant milky brew of India; I wake up with it every morning. However, the story of how tea made its way to India is one of monopoly, adventure and corporate espionage.
The Chinese had been growing tea for thousands of years, and around the mid-19th century, the British — who were colonizing India at the time — wanted to break that monopoly. After having sent a botanist spy to China on a years-long mission to acquire tea seedlings and related information, the British started growing tea in the Himalayan foothills to compete with the Chinese monopoly.
Tea plantations flourished in the idyllic mountains of Assam and Darjeeling, yet the locals were uninterested in the teas. Until one day, when someone brewed black tea with milk and aromatic spices, and the masala chai was born! Even the word “chai” is derived from the Mandarin word for tea (“cha”).
Spiking chai with rosemary and rum is wonderful for evening holiday celebrations — or just relaxation. Cashews coated in spices with mint and pomegranate seeds are a simple yet luxurious rendition of chaats, the beloved street foods of India. All in all, it’s a delicious pairing.
makes ~5-6 servings / 2-3 servings of masala cashews
4 cups of water
1 tablespoon grated unpeeled ginger
8-10 lightly crushed green cardamom pods
½ teaspoon lightly crushed black peppercorns
3-4 sprigs of rosemary
1 cup whole milk
2 tablespoons Assam tea leaves or 3-4 black tea bags
2 ounces rum
2 tablespoons honey (or to taste)
1 cup roasted cashews
1 tablespoon ghee or butter
2 teaspoon amchur
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
Small handful of mint leaves
½ cup pomegranate seeds
Juice from one lime
Combine the water with the ginger, cardamom, peppercorns and rosemary in a stockpot and bring to a boil. Lower the heat, cover the pot and simmer on the lowest setting for 10-12 minutes, allowing the water to infuse with the spices.
Raise the heat to high and add milk to the pot. As soon as the mixture boils, taking care to ensure it does not boil over, add the tea leaves or bags. Simmer for 20-30 seconds then turn the heat off. Cover the stockpot and let the tea steep for 3-4 minutes.
Strain, add the rum and honey and serve immediately.
For Masala Cashews
In a frying pan, heat the ghee. (If using butter, make sure not to burn it before adding the cashews).
Add the cashews, amchur, black pepper and salt and stir on low heat for 1-2 minutes, just until the spices begin to stick to the nuts. Turn the heat off and let cashews cool.
In a bowl, toss the cashews with the mint leaves, pomegranate seeds and squeeze lime juice over it.
ideas / variations
Quality of tea really matters, so source carefully. If using tea bags, the brand we recommend most is PG Tips (available at most Indian or international grocers). If using leaves, use good-quality, strong Assam tea leaves.
Amchur is sun-dried green mango powder, available at most Indian grocers. You can also add it to roasted chicken, potatoes or popcorn.
To roast cashews, place them on a baking sheet and bake for 10-15 minutes at 300 degrees. They should turn golden brown.
Masala chai can be prepared with many different flavors: replace rosemary with mint or lemongrass and replace cardamom with cinnamon, nutmeg, mace or cloves.
Replace rum with bourbon or cognac.