My grandmother's chai is the special tradition I'll keep forever

It's the cornerstone of my afternoon ritual — and my holiday entertaining secret weapon

Published December 24, 2021 11:00AM (EST)

Masala tea Or chai in a glass cup. (Getty Images)
Masala tea Or chai in a glass cup. (Getty Images)

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The sound of my mother's stainless-steel teapot clanking shut is always my signal that it's time for chai. Chai has always been a part of my daily culture. As a child, I had the habit of walking around the kitchen table just to smell what was in my parents' cups.  There was something so intoxicating about that aroma — sweet and spicy, cozy and warm. I started drinking chai at a young age, mixed with plenty of milk when I was too young for the burst of caffeine; even today, when I am most definitely old enough to handle the straight-up version, it is the absolute anchor of my morning routine.

In India, every family has a unique blend and the recipe is a deeply personal representation and tradition. My maternal grandmother's recipe is the one I cherish most. To celebrate my family's blend, I created my own version of this special recipe: bursting with ginger and black pepper, and rounded out with cardamom, cinnamon and cloves. 

The very first thing that we offer family and friends when we welcome them into our home is a cup of chai. It is the perfect mix of typical and special: a warm and homey greeting. As we wait for the chai to steep, we typically set out savory snacks, called farsan (in Gujarati) and namkeen (in Hindi). We place the various snacks on a big plate next to the chai for munching and sipping while visiting; there's no fancy china or elaborate table setting, but just good food, a hot drink, and loving company.

Because chai is typically served sweetened, a salty snack is the perfect accompaniment and adds balance. My favorite of these salty snacks typically include cheese. During my visits to India, when chai was both a morning and afternoon ritual, I would jump for joy when my aunt would pull both paneer and white cheese from the fridge to make an afternoon snack to munch on. It felt like an acknowledgement of the blend of my Indian and American roots — and besides that, it was just so tasty.

As a nod to my aunt, and a combination of my favorite snacks to eat with chai (chili cheese toast and cheese corn toast), I'm also sharing a recipe for Paneer and Corn Puffs to go alongside. This is the best of everything in buttery puff — the warmth of the ginger, complexity from the chaat masala, sweet notes from the corn, and richness from the cheese. It's the perfect accompaniment to my grandmother's ginger-forward masala mix.

It is hard not to think about my family's traditions and cultural heritage when drinking a cup of chai each day. I feel so connected to my roots knowing that I use my grandmother's recipe in my daily routine: After all, I make the same cup of tea that my mom made while I was growing up, and hers before that. I even have my own stainless steel teapot to complete the experience.


Recipe: Pooja's Family's Masala Chai


  • 1 cup water
  • 1/3 cup whole, 2%, or nondairy milk
  • 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon chai masala (you can make your own or purchase a pre-ground spice blend)
  • 1 (1-inch) piece ginger, peeled and minced
  • 2 to 3 mint leaves (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon black CTC tea (or loose black tea)


  1. Add water to a small pot. Place the pot over medium high heat. While water is warming, add 1 tbsp. sugar, 1/2 tsp of chai masala, and 1 inch piece of fresh ginger, minced.
  2. Bring water, sugar, and spices to a boil. When at a rolling boil, add milk and let it heat up. Taste the mixture and adjust sugar and spices to your preference. If using mint, add the leaves now.
  3. When the milk starts boiling, lower the heat and add tea. Stir the tea with a spoon and let the milk mixture and tea boil together for about 45 seconds to a minute — you want to make sure that the tea becomes a golden-amber color. Strain the tea out and enjoy while hot!

* * *

Recipe: Paneer and Corn Puffs

Makes 12 puffs


  • 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 (1-inch) piece ginger, peeled and very finely diced 
  • 1/2 jalapeño, (seeds removed, if desired) and finely diced 
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric 
  • 1 cup frozen corn kernels
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed
  • 2 cups paneer, shredded (from 6 oz paneer)
  • 1 cup shredded white cheese (my preferred brand is Amul, but a white cheddar or processed mozzarella will work here as well)
  • 1 package frozen puff pastry sheets, thawed overnight in the refrigerator (my preferred brand is Pepperidge Farm)
  • All-purpose flour, for dusting surface and rolling pin
  • 1 teaspoon chaat masala, divided 


  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside. 
  2. In a non-stick pan, over medium-heat, warm the olive oil. Add minced ginger, jalapeño, and turmeric powder into the pan and let cook for about 2 minutes, constantly stirring to prevent sticking. Add corn kernels and salt and mix to incorporate and cook, another 2 minutes. Taste and adjust salt. Turn off heat and let cool. 
  3. Mix shredded paneer and cheese together in a medium bowl and set aside.  
  4. Remove one of the two sheets of puff pastry from the refrigerator. Cut into 3 equal rectangles. With the long side facing you, cut each long rectangle in half, creating 6 smaller rectangles.  
  5. Sprinkle a large work surface with flour and dust rolling pin with flour to ensure that the puff pastry does not stick. With a rolling pin, roll out each piece of puff pastry until it is roughly 4 inches by 6 inches in size. Sprinkle each piece lightly with chaat masala.  
  6. Once the corn mixture is cool, mix in cheese and paneer. Fold together until well incorporated. Using a 1/4 cup measurement, scoop the mixture and place it onto a prepared puff pastry piece, just below the center of the piece. Using a wet finger, outline the border of the piece of puff pastry, to ensure that it will seal. Pull the top part of the puff pastry over the bottom, covering the filling. Pinch all sides of the pastry and then press down each side with a fork. Place the sealed pastry onto the prepared baking sheet.
  7. Repeat with the remaining 5 pieces of puff pastry. Remove the second piece of puff pastry from the refrigerator and repeat the process to form an additional 6 puffs.  
  8. Place in the oven for 25 minutes, until golden brown. Let cool on the sheet for 10 minutes before transferring to a wire rack.  Eat warm or at room temperature. Serve plain or with a favorite dipping sauce and a cup of chai.  

By Pooja Bavishi

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