How to make a proper cup of chai

Odds are you've never had one

Various cups of Chai
Clockwise from top: cardamom, Assam tea, orange pekoe, fennel, cloves, all the ingredients together, cinnamon bark, and Darjeeling tea

Photograph by Wedig + Laxton

Chai is a regular morning ritual for Monica Sunny, who was born in Punjab and grew up in Atlanta. “I have memories of my mom making us chai in the morning and us waking up to the scent,” she says. When she was six years old, her mother taught her how to prepare it, and Sunny has since schooled her three sons in the art of chai. It brings to their East Cobb home a reminder of the family’s roots in India. “It was the first thing I learned how to make,” she says, “so I wanted my boys to know how to make it, too.”

“Chai tea lattes” served at corporate coffee shops differ from a proper cup of chai. In fact, the term “chai tea” is redundant; chai itself is a tea blend. “Nothing makes me angrier than seeing that [phrase], because that means chai is a flavor, and it’s not,” Sunny says. “It’s a pet peeve of a lot of Indian people.”

True chai should evoke all your senses—“the smell of it, the touch of the spices, the [sound of] crushing them, the taste,” Sunny says. There’s also the physical beauty of the various components all laid out.

The Chai Box, the tea company Sunny launched, offers a chai spice kit containing a melange of cardamom, cinnamon, fennel, clove, and loose tea leaves. In India, there are seemingly endless variations of chai; depending on where you are or who’s making it, you might find saffron, rose petals, ginger, or nutmeg in your cup. Whole, fresh spices, which also can be sourced at Indian markets, are key.

To make chai, Sunny first crushes the spices using a mortar and pestle, then adds them to a pot of boiling water. Next, she adds a blend of Darjeeling, Assam, and orange pekoe leaves to the pot and lets them simmer before stirring in milk. She uses two percent, but almost any milk or nut milk works (she advises against cashew, which curdles). She returns the mixture to a boil, then strains it into teacups, stirring in sugar to taste.

To complete your experience, pair your chai with a rusk, a mild, twice-baked biscuit that beautifully soaks up the beverage.

This article appears in our January 2020 issue.