Indian Spiced Tea – Masala Chai



“Chai,” as many Americans call it, is correctly “Masala Chai,” meaning “spiced tea.” “Chai” alone simply means “tea” in the Indian subcontinent. It’s composed of black tea brewed with milk, sugar, and fresh and dried spices. A classic street vendor drink, it was once sold in throwaway thin-sided clay cups. It is now often served in small glasses or brass cups.

Masala Chai with its spices


This is not my recipe. Rather it is basically the recipe of my sister in law, Karin Downs, who spent a college semester in India and later spent two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nepal, where Masala Chai is also common. This is the way my wife Christina makes the drink at home, where the grandkids enjoy it. It’s also the way we make it at the family-run restaurant, Donderos’ Kitchen, in Athens, Georgia.


In India the drink can be quite sweet. We make it less sweet, but the sugar can be increased if preferred.


The  recipe makes over 6 cups, or about 8-10 servings. Leftover Masala Chai is nice cold too.


4 cups water

5 (1/8-inch) slices fresh ginger, not peeled

2 (3-inch) sticks whole cinnamon

8 whole green cardamoms

1 teaspoon whole cloves

1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns

1 teaspoon whole coriander seeds

3 tea bags (or 2 tablespoons loose) black Indian-type tea

3 cups whole milk

2-3 tablespoons sugar, or more to taste


In a cooking pot, simmer together the water, fresh ginger, and all the dry whole spices for 20 minutes. Add the tea bags or loose tea, and simmer 5 minutes. Add milk and sugar and bring it to just heated but not boiling (it could foam over if it boils).


Pour through a strainer into a tea pot, from which to serve the tea. Serve in cups or small glasses.



Spicy Pinto Beans



Here’s an easily made pinto bean dish of the sort that goes well as an ingredient in tacos, fajitas, nachos, enchiladas, quesadillas, and burritos. Alternatively, the beans go well with rice as a lunch or snack.


The recipe serves six people as a light meal, or serves more people if used as an ingredient in one of the Tex-Mex dishes mentioned above.


1 small green bell pepper or 1/2 a medium one

1 medium jalapeño pepper

1 small onion or 1/2 a medium one

1 clove garlic

3 tablespoons olive oil

4 (14-ounce) cans pinto beans

1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

1 1/2 teaspoons paprika

1 teaspoon chipotle chili powder, if available, or 1 extra teaspoon regular chili powder

1 teaspoon regular chili powder, or 2 teaspoons if chipotle chili powder not used

1/2 teaspoon oregano

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/3 teaspoon cayenne

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1 cup water

Coarsely chopped cilantro for garnish, if desired


Core the bell pepper and cut it in chunks. Cut the stem off the jalapeño, and cut the jalapeño in half, keeping the seeds. Peel the onion and the garlic clove. Chop all four vegetables very finely in a food processor, or on a cutting board with a chef’s knife. Place vegetable mixture in a heavy pot with the olive oil. Set aside.


Open the cans of beans, and holding their lids on, drain off as uch liquid as you can, but do not rinse. Add 1 cup of water to one of the cans of beans. Measure the salt and dry seasonings and put them in a small bowl or cup.


Place the pot with the chopped vegetables and olive oil on the stove, and fry, stirring very frequently, until the vegetables are softened, but not browned. Add the beans and their water plus the spices to the pot. Heat, simmering for about ten minutes, stirring frequently and scraping the bottom of the pot, so that the beans don’t stick.


Remove from the heat. Taste, and add salt if needed.


Use a a lunch dish with rice, sprinkled with chopped parsley, or use as an ingredient on nachos, quesadillas, enchiladas, tacos, fajitas or burritos.




Red Lentil Dal with Spinach, a good Iron Source


One of my teenage grandchildren has been vegetarian for some years. And as she is active in sports, getting enough iron to avoid anemia is a challenge. She loves Indian food, and does some cooking. So this one is for her. 

Lentils, and especially red lentils (called “masoor dal” in India), and spinach (called “palak” or “saag” in India) are both good sources of dietary iron. They also have many other nutritional benefits, including protein, soluble and insoluble fiber, and multiple vitamins.


Here is a delicious Indian vegetarian dish, Dal Saag (or Dal Palak), that brings together these two fine iron sources. It also makes a great meal, accompanied by rice or chapati flat bread, plus yogurt and a fresh chutney (I have a good recipe for fresh tomato chutney elsewhere in this blog).


Masoor dal, split and hulled red (or “Egyptian”) lentils, are available inexpensively at supermarkets, Indian stores, and natural food stores. The spices are relatively readily available at the same places. Frozen spinach is the easiest for this cooking, but fresh could be used if preferred. Indian cooks would typically fry part of the cumin seeds and part of the onion in a little oil or clarified butter (ghee) and stir it in at the end for heightened flavor. For simplicity (and for a teen-aged cook) I leave that step out and just cook those seasonings in with the lentils.


The recipe makes about a quart and a half, enough for six people. It keeps well in the fridge and reheats easily in the microwave.


1 1/2 cup split red lentils

5 cups water

4 tablespoons butter (or vegetable oil for a vegan dish)

1 small onion finely chopped

1 1/2 teaspoons turmeric

1 1/4 teaspoons whole cumin seeds (or ground as a second choice)

1/2 teaspoon whole coriander seeds (or ground as a second choice)

1/2 teaspoon cayenne

1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

1 (12-ounce) package frozen chopped spinach (not thawed)

Coarsely chopped cilantro for garnish, if desired


Rinse and drain the lentils. Place in a pot with the water. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally and scraping the bottom of thee pot. Skim off and discard the foam that arises as the lentils boil.


Add the butter, onion and spices (not the salt), and simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally and scraping the bottom of the pot, until lentils are tender and start to disintegrate, 25-30 minutes. If the mixture is getting somewhat dry, add a little water.

Add the salt and simmer a few more minutes.


Finally, add the frozen spinach, and stirring frequently, cook only until the spinach is heated. Do not cook after the mixture boils.


Remove from the heat, taste for salt and add a little if needed. Let cool. The flavors are enhanced as the mixture rests.


Reheat to serve. Top lightly with coarsely chopped cilantro leaves, if desired, when using as part of an Indian meal with rice or chapati.




Spring Greens and Strawberry Salad with Strawberry Vinaigrette – All Year Long


Bright, young leafy greens and gorgeous red strawberries combine for a delightful salad that screams “springtime.” But -- happily -- the story is  more complicated. 

“Spring Mix,” a collection of young salad greens is now available throughout the year. And most of it is hydroponically grown in greenhouses. Increasingly it’s produced locally in all seasons. Strawberries, which in my childhood were very seasonal and locally grown, are available year round, and are either shipped in, or now also greenhouse grown. Strawberries are safest if organic or at least raised in greenhouses.


Here’s my “springtime” salad offering, which was previously a column in Boom Magazine, an Athens publication for which I regularly write about food and cooking.

Using some of the strawberries, particularly the less beautiful ones in the package, to infuse the salad dressing makes the salad an even more intense celebration of spring. And, thanks to modern agriculture, it can be enjoyed any time of year.


The recipe serves six. The salad dressing can be made in advance.


1 pint (16 ounces) strawberries, organic or greenhouse grown

1 sprig fresh mint or other herb, optional

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon sea salt, plus to taste

3 tablespoons wine vinegar or cider vinegar

2 tablespoons water

1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper

2 1/2 tablespoons sunflower oil or part olive oil

4 cups (loosely measured) spring mix salad greens (from supermarket)


Divide the strawberries into two halves, the prettiest berries in one half. Save those for topping the salad.


Using the less pretty berries, cut off the hulls and stems and chop or mash the berries finely. Mix them in a bowl with the fresh herb, if used, sugar, salt, vinegar and water. Mix well and allow to sit for an hour or more. Put mixture through a strainer into another bowl and press down firmly to extract the juices. Discard the squeezed-out strawberry pulp. Add the black pepper and oil to the liquid in the bowl. Mix and taste for salt, adding a little, if needed, to taste. It should be faintly salty.


Place the spring mix (no need to rinse the leaves if the package indicates they were already washed) in a salad bowl. Hull the reserved (prettier} strawberries. Slice them from top to bottom 1/4-inch thick and distribute them on top of the salad greens. Transfer the dressing to an attractive jar. Just before serving, and preferably at the table for the diners to see, toss the dressing with the greens and berries.

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