What are some of your favorite smells in the whole world? Maybe it’s the smell of fresh cut grass or the smell of the pavement after a warm rain or the smell of fresh laundry. Maybe it’s food related: the smell of fresh bread just out of the oven or freshly ground coffee beans or the spritz of the citrus rind.
One of my favorite smells is masala chai spices. The heady aromas of cardamom and cinnamon, the spicy kick of ginger and pepper, the warm complexity of allspice and cloves.
And I love that my kids are learning to love these spices too. When I made this granola with my five year old, I gave him the task of crushing the cardamom shells and removing the inner seeds. And, as he pounded and sifted, he couldn’t stop exclaiming about how amazing it smelled (and, to be fair to him, the new Diaspora Co. single origin cardamom I got is especially fragrant!). And then he stuck his head in to smell all the spices and got excited when he could smell cinnamon. Those are the small moments that excite me, when I can see food come alive for my kids and animate their days. Food excites me too and it’s fun to share it with them.
Masala chai, which has become a core of our North American lexicon around Indian cuisine, has a complex history entwined with colonization in India (and a more complex relationship to how it has become appropriated within North America…). Tea (which is what ‘chai’ translates to) was brought to India via colonization; the British, with tea drinking firmly embedded in their cultural fabric, were loathe to pay the steep prices demanded from Chinese tea merchants. To circumvent this, the British (who were occupying India – one of their many colonies) began to grow tea in India for export to Britain. The British also worked to implement a local tea culture in India, including mandatory tea breaks to grow sales of tea within India, boosting the bottom line of British owned tea plantations. Despite this British heavy handedness, Indian tea drinkers subverted the drink, cutting it with milk and adding an array of spices (which is what ‘masala’ translates to), reducing the amount of actual tea needed and making something new, a tea that was distinctly Indian in character. Each blend would be unique to the maker, utilizing herbs and spices that were available and preferred. Chai in India became a milky, heavily spiced drink with its own history of colonialism and subversion of it. It became masala chai.
But even this is a simplified version, as India is a complex place with many different cultures, religions, and places. At train stations in India in the early half of the 1900s (when chai was becoming the cultural force it is now), chai wallahs (tea vendors) would hawk their chai, using a shorthand that let those passing by know what was in their blend. Shouting ‘Muslim Chai!’ indicated that the blend used cardamom. ‘Hindu Chai!’ indicated it was made with other herbs. And, while these lines undoubtedly were not so clearly demarcated, it points to the varied nature of India and its contributing influences. Chai also helped break down these religious and cultural lines in India, as this great article on chai sums up; tea helped break down social divisions between castes and religions. Everyone could enjoy sitting down for a cup of masala chai, and even lines like the ones between ‘Hindu chai’ and ”Muslim chai’ disappeared over time and spices like cardamom were used across demarcations.
All of this is important for those of us who are not Indian to know, as masala chai has become commodified and appropriated, separated from the cultural practices where it began. Beyond this, it’s important to center discussion of colonialism and capitalism: as Madhuri Sastry reminds us, they (along with caste) are important in understanding Indian food. It’s also important as India is following the pattern of other countries in the current political climate, inciting Islamaphobia, facism and anti-immigration to pass laws that could strip Indian citizenship from Muslims in India. Despite Muslims being an important part of India and its foods, they face uncertain times laden with violence and hate.
As a non-Indian, I’m hesitant to too quickly draw conclusions or comparisons, to write summaries or lessons, or to perhaps suggest that food has the answers (as I’ve written, it rarely does). Suffice it to say that it’s important to stand in solidarity with antifacism, antiracism, and those fighting Islamaphobia around the world. We cannot allow these violences to flourish unchecked. Across India, people have been showing up and standing up against hate, including some of the largest protests in India’s history (which has a history of some pretty powerful protests). Let’s all do the same.
All of this is part of the story, part of this granola. It’s the background, the story, what makes it come to life as much as the smells. You can’t have one without the other. There is no food that is not also political, no food that doesn’t have a story behind it. Food is always political.
And so, this is what I am thinking about as I make this granola, as I grind the spices and mix the ingredients. And, then, my nose takes me back to my kitchen.
The best part of making this granola (aside from the eating of it, of course) is when it’s all in the oven and your house is almost overwhelmingly filled with the cozy smell of the spices. My five year old was upstairs when I started baking it (he typically gets impatient with the cooking process!) and he raced down to let me know he could smell it all the way up there!
In this recipe is not just the masala (the spices, which are often just incorrectly referred to as chai or ‘chai spice’), but it also has the chai itself (the tea). Black tea is ground up with the spices for an extra flavor boost. It’s something I’ve been doing with Earl Grey tea in various recipes recently so I thought I would try it here too, and it’s so good.
This granola is nut heavy, which I love because it adds some healthy oils and proteins to our diet as well as making this granola nice and crunchy. But, like any granola recipe, it’s more of a template than a recipe. Feel free to substitute ingredients. I love, love, love the hazelnuts in here but if you don’t have them, try pecans or walnuts. Go for sliced or slivered almonds if you have them. Cut some nuts out, add some chia seeds or hemp hearts. Add dried cherries instead of cranberries if you’re feeling that. This is the mix that’s really speaking to me, that I think goes amazingly with these spices, but follow your own taste buds and pantries on this; I won’t be offended!
Before you start measuring things out, know that this is not a ‘cluster’ granola recipe; if you’re looking for something that sticks together in those sastisfyingly crunchy, sugary clusters, this isn’t it. If that’s what you’re wanting, a quick little modification is necessary, using the Smitten Kitchen method of adding egg whites, or more sugar additions are necessary. I like this granola because it’s not as sweet as commercial granola (and feels healthier), but still sweet enough to make you want to snack on it at any time (especially warm out of the oven!)
Masala Chai Granola
This is a healthy, spice-laden recipe that will fill your house with all those warm spice smells: cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, allspice. It also included ground up black tea for an extra flavor kick that, once you add milk to the granola, will create a hearty bowl of chai masala for breakfast! It's sweet, spicy, crunchy and easy to make. I make it in a big batch because it keeps well in a jar or Ziploc bag and makes for a special breakfast treat when served with either milk or yogurt. It's also great for just snacking on by the handful!
- 3 cups old fashioned rolled oats
- 1 cup almonds (roughly chopped)
- 1 cup hazelnuts (roughly chopped)
- 1/2 cup pepitas
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
- 1 tablespoon loose black tea leaves, ground
- 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
- 1/4 teaspoon white pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/2 cup maple syrup
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 cup unsweetened, toasted coconut chips
- 1 cup dried cranberries
Preheat the oven to 300F.
In a large bowl combine the oats, nuts, pepitas, salt and spices.
In a small bowl whisk together the maple syrup, vanilla extract and olive oil. Pour the syrup mixture into the large bowl with the oats and mix well, until the oats look 'wet' instead of dry. Spread the mixture evenly out onto a large baking sheet.
Bake for 10-15 minutes, then remove the pan from the oven and give it a good stir (especially if you're oven has hot spots like mine). Return the oats back to the oven and continue to bake until golden brown and crisp, about 10-15 minutes longer. Keep a close eye at the end, and you might need to stir these a couple times to make sure everything is browning evenly and not getting too dark.
Remove the granola from the oven and stir in the dried cranberries and toasted coconut chips. Let the granola cool completely before storing in an airtight container or a large ziploc bag.
If you don't have coconut chips, you could use shredded coconut but I would add that in with the oat mix at the beginning to toast with everything else.