Author: Candie Yoder
Chai in many languages is the term used for tea. It comes from cha, the Chinese word for tea. Today in the United States it is a general term for a spiced milk tea that is sweetened. The proper term for this spiced tea is masala chai, masala being an Indian word meaning any spice blend. For the purpose of this article, I will use the word chai to mean masala chai.
Chai is a beverage that is more popular in India than coffee is in the US. In India, chai is available from street vendors called chaiwallahs. These chaiwallahs carry pots of chai and serve it in freshly fired earthen cups that are discarded after use. It is also a family tradition in India to welcome your guests with cups of chai. Each family has their own recipe and preparation method. Visitors to India who have fallen in love with this magical drink have brought it here to the US. You can buy instant chai that is loaded with sugar and pre-flavored or you can by pre-blended tea and spices either in tea bags or as loose leaves. You can also purchase chai in a concentrated liquid form or you can make your own to your own tastes.
Ingredients and methods for preparing chai vary with each family - there is no wrong way to prepare it. The most commonly used ingredients include;
Cardamom A wonderfully fragrant spice that comes in two varieties: green and black. Green cardamom is what you want for chai. To attain the full flavor of cardamom you should heat it in a hot pan, stirring constantly until the aroma strengthens.
Cinnamon A common spice but usually used in ground form. Cinnamon should be used in chunk or stick form for chai. Sticks should be crushed before use.
Cloves Cloves are another commonly used spice but only whole cloves should be used for chai. Only one or two cloves are enough to infuse a large pot of chai.
Pepper - Pepper is available in black, white and green varieties. Whole peppercorns should always be purchased for cooking and for making chai. Simply grind when needed.
Ginger Ginger is a root that should be purchased fresh. Ginger has a pungent, almost citrus flavor with warming effects.
There are more ingredients used by some and they include:
Ajwain A relative of caraway, it offers pungent and bitter seeds that are used to aid in digestion.
Allspice Allspice is aptly named because it tastes like a combination of pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. The allspice berries should be freshly crushed just before use.
Coriander The seeds of the cilantro plant, coriander is popular in northern Europe. Indian coriander seeds are very pungent yet sweet, not unlike the sweet/tart taste of a citrus peel. Coriander seeds should be freshly roasted and ground before use in chai.
Chocolate Chocolate is loved all around the world and is a great addition to chai. Use unsweetened dark chocolate cocoa.
Fennel Sometimes candy coated and used as a digestive aid and breath freshener, fennel is often served after meals in India. Fennel chais do not have the warmth and fire that cinnamon or cloves contribute to the brew. The fennel seeds can be crushed or used whole and should be added at the last minute.
Licorice root Licorice has a strong sweet flavor that can mask other spices in chai so go lightly. The licorice root is usually available in tea bags that let it be infused easily.
Nutmeg Nutmeg is extensively used in Indian cuisine and frequently in US baking. Mace is the outer husk of the nutmeg and has a subtle cinnamon and pepper flavor. When using nutmeg or mace in chai, add them at the last minute as they lose flavor quickly when heated.
Vanilla Vanilla beans give the best flavor and aroma. Split the bean and scrape the moist brown seeds from the inside. Add the left over bean to a sealed container of sugar to enhance it with the flavor and aroma of the vanilla. IF you must use vanilla extract, use only the pure extract to prevent the unpleasant aftertaste of synthetic extracts.
So you've got your spices figured out. Now what do you do with them? Well first, you must choose your tea. Tea seems almost forgotten in some commercial chais, but traditional chais are just spiced teas. Darjeeling teas are light and refreshing but they do not hold up well to strong spices like cinnamon and ginger. A simple cardamom infusion works well with Darjeeling teas. Nilgiri teas accept flavoring easily and work well for iced chais. Assams have a much more robust flavor and work well for strongly spiced hot chais. Keemun teas are strong like Assams yet they add a slight smokiness with cocoa overtones. Green teas are also used but they do not hold up well to strong spices and must not be boiled or steeped for more than 3 minutes or you will end up with a bitter brew. If you need to avoid caffeine then you have a few options. Decaffeinated teas generally do not have the robust flavor that chai needs. A decaf breakfast blend will offer the best flavor. Another zero caffeine option is Rooibos, an herbal tea that is readily available.
The options for sweetening chai are as varied as chai itself. Regular white sugar works fine in chais but does not add anything but pure sweetness. Unprocessed sugar, aka Turbinado sugar, has more flavor than white sugar and adds a depth to chai. Molasses sugar, dark and unrefined, is excellent in chai. When using honey it is important to use orange or clover honey (the bees used nectar from orange or clover flowers) for the stronger flavor. Sweetened condensed milk is frequently used to add sweetness and a caramelized milky flavor.
There are many brewing options with chai. Generally you start by brewing your spices and sugar to pull as much flavor as possible. This normally takes about 6 minutes. People who like a very strong tea flavor add their tea right away with their spices. But don't do this with Green tea, as you'll end up pouring the bitter tasting batch down the drain. After steeping your spices, add milk and bring to almost boiling. Add tea and turn off the heat. Allow the mixture to infuse for 3 to 5 minutes. Strain and serve in prewarmed cups. Do not be afraid to garnish your chai with whipped cream and a sprinkle of cocoa or cinnamon. You can also chill your prepared chai and blend it with ice cream to make a delicious cold chai drink.
To get you on your way I have collected a few recipes to give you a jump-start
This warming beverage is easy to prepare by steeping spices in hot water and milk before adding black tea. It's not as milky as the chai often sold at American coffee bars. To make it richer, add more milk and sugar to taste.
4 whole cloves
2 cardamom pods
1 cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
3 cups water
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup milk
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons Black tea
In a mortar, crush the cloves, cardamom pods and cinnamon. Transfer the crushed spices to a small saucepan, add the water, ginger and pepper and bring to a boil. Remove the pan from the heat, cover and let steep for 5 minutes.
Add the milk and sugar to the pan and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and add the tea. Cover and let steep for 3 minutes. Stir the chai, strain it into a warmed teapot or directly into teacups.
2 1/4 cups water
1 stick cinnamon
8 cardamom pods
6 teaspoons sugar
3 teaspoons any unperfumed black tea (Assam, etc.)
Put the water in a pan. Add cinnamon, cardamom pods, and cloves. Bring mixture to a boil. Cover, turn heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the milk and sugar and bring to a simmer again. Add tea leaves, cover the pan and turn off the heat. After two minutes, strain the tea into 2 cups and serve immediately.
Green Cardamom Chai
2 1/4 cups water
2 cardamom pod, whole, split
3/4 cup milk
6 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoon green tea
Bring water and milk to almost a boil. Add cardamom and steep 3 minutes, uncovered. Add tea. Stir lightly. Steep 2 minutes more, uncovered. Strain and enjoy.
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