Wander into almost any coffee shop in America today, and you can order something called “chai.” At a Starbucks, that’ll likely mean a sweet cinnamony latte served hot or over ice. Your local third-wave coffee shop might have a fancified version it’s very proud of, made with slightly less sugar. And all the major chain grocers sell some kind of concentrated spiced chai mix to prepare at home. But to most South Asians, chai — which is simply the Hindi or Urdu word for tea — refers to something entirely different: not a drink, but a whole robust genre of beverages.
This holds true for New York’s cab driver community, a large proportion of which is South Asian, and who, like many across the Indian subcontinent, look to a soothing cup of hot chai for a quick sugar rush to perk up their often long, grueling shifts. But even among the cabbies who gather together in the wee hours at the New York Badminton Center in Queens (as seen on the late-night New York episode of Eater’s Guide to the Entire World, now streaming on Hulu), there are differing opinions on what makes the perfect chai. Preferred recipes tend to vary depending on where in South Asia you trace your roots, but three ingredients almost always make the cut: black tea, usually from Assam or Darjeeling in India; more sugar than seems reasonable; and full-fat milk.
From there, though, the variations are endless — and very much worth trying. Here’s a look at just some of the most popular preparations, plus a recipe from one of the best chai slingers in New York.
The most widely consumed version of chai is masala, which translates to “spice” and indicates the presence of some combination of spices — usually a mix of cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, and black peppercorns, along with fresh-grated ginger — in addition to the classic trio of black tea, milk, and sugar. This is the style of chai you’ll find being poured by the chaiwallas, or tea vendors, all over the subcontinent, where one cup can cost as little as 10 rupees, or about 13 cents. While masala chai typically includes at least two kinds of spices, there are single-spice variants, too, like adrak chai, dominated by spicy ginger, and elaichiwali chai, with a fragrant hit of cardamom.
This incandescent drink is known as Kashmiri tea or gulabi chai, the latter referring to its characteristic pink hue. That vibrant color is the result of a chemical reaction that takes place when the signature green tea leaves from Kashmir, the disputed territory in the northern part of the Indian subcontinent, react with a pinch of baking soda that’s added after steeping. And it’s a long steep. The drink steeps for up to two full hours, though some modern versions of the recipe suggest that 20 to 30 minutes suffice. Milk is then vigorously stirred in, along with sugar and another surprise ingredient: salt. In fact, traditional Kashmiri preparations of the drink include just salt — no sugar at all — though a sweetened version has become more commonplace in places like Pakistan, where Kashmiri chai is a favorite.
Iranian-style cafes began popping up in India and Pakistan — particularly in the cities of Mumbai, Hyderabad, and Karachi — in the 19th and early 20th century, as Zoroastrian Iranians fled persecution in their country and relocated to the Indian subcontinent. While the number of Irani cafes in India is now dwindling, the popularity of Irani chai is not. This singular take on the classic gets its rich creaminess from mawa, also known as khoya, a thick dairy product made with dry milk that’s typical in the region. Spices can sometimes be added, too, but however it’s prepared, it’s best sipped alongside a hot bun maska — a pillowy bread slathered with butter.
Namak Wali Chai
Unique to the Central Indian city of Bhopal, namak wali chai is similar to noon chai in that its name literally translates to “chai with salt,” but it doesn’t have noon chai’s bright colors. Typically prepared in large steel pots over open flames, namak wali chai sometimes contains kala namak, a type of rock salt used in South Asia thought to cure sore throats, as well as black pepper.
Recipe: Boishakhi’s Bengali Chai
The Bengali chai at Astoria mainstay Boishakhi — a favorite among New York taxi drivers — follows the basic principle of black tea, sugar, and milk in its preparation. Sounds easy enough, right? Here’s how to make it yourself.
Makes 4 cups of tea
3 cups water
6 teaspoons Brooke Bond Red Label loose leaf tea (can be found in Indian stores or on Amazon)
6 teaspoons granulated sugar
1 cup evaporated milk
Step 1: Bring the water to a boil in a medium saucepan over high heat. Once the water starts boiling, reduce the flame to medium and let it continue boiling at a slower pace for about 10 minutes.
Step 2: Add the tea leaves to the boiling water. Let the mixture continue to boil for another 10 minutes or so.
Step 3: Add the milk, and continue to boil the mixture until it looks thicker and takes on a brownish color, about 5 minutes.
Step 4: Drain the chai into cups or glasses using a tea strainer or a small sieve, and add 1½ teaspoons of sugar to each cup. Add more sugar if you like a sweeter hit. Serve hot.