by Renu Chhabra
“There is something in the nature of tea that leads us into a world of quiet contemplation of life.”― Yutang Lin, The Importance Of Living
Drinking chai is a way of life in India. Mornings start with a cup of chai, and it finds its way into people’s lives throughout the day. It is an expression to take a break, and calm your senses, one sip at a time — like punctuation is to pauses — and then move ahead.
Chai is the Hindi term for tea itself in India, where this wonderful beverage comes from. In fact, masala chai means the spiced tea that we know as chai tea or chai in the West. Masala means spice and chai means tea, hence “spiced tea”.
Chai, an everyday beverage in the East has gained enormous popularity in the West. From coffee shops to gourmet restaurants, it has found a trendy platform where it is star. We find this fragrant flavor in lattés, ice creams, truffles, cookies, brownies, and cakes. A basic Eastern spice blend has been given a very sophisticated Western face. Another Western twist is the addition of vanilla at times, which is not part of the traditional blend.
Aromatic spices give chai its distinct character. Their oils are extracted when cooked and steeped in hot water giving chai its fragrant foundation. Then black tea leaves, whole milk, and sugar are added to it. And you have a cup of warm comfort, perfect for any time of the day. Whole milk gives it richness and body, and sweetener brings out the flavor of the spices even more.
Chai spices can be combined in so many different ways. Every family has its own recipe — just like chili recipes. Make it as simple or as complex as you like, depending on the number and types of spices you like or have on hand. The usual spices that are used in chai are cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, fennel, and black pepper. Some are warm and some are sweet, but they all lend a fragrant note. Try new combinations to discover your favorite.
I usually like to keep chai simple with just one or two spices. My favorite spice combination is sweet cardamom and ginger; they go well together. Sometimes too many spices overlap each other’s distinct flavors and lose their individual personalities — not a good thing, I say. My philosophy is to keep it simple and clean. Chai can be tea leaves with just one spice of your choice, which I often do, or it can be with as many as your heart desires. Make your own concoction. After all, it’s your cup of tea. Take a break and savor it.
The first cup moistens my lips and throat. The second cup breaks my loneliness. The third cup searches my barren entrails, but to find therein some thousand volumes of odd ideograms. The fourth cup raises a slight perspiration — all the wrongs of life seep out through my pores. At the fifth cup I am purified. The sixth cup calls me to the realms of the immortals. The seventh cup — ah, but I could take no more! I only feel the breath of the cool wind that raises in my sleeves. Where is Elysium? Let me ride on this sweet breeze and waft away thither.–Lu Tung, “Tea-Drinking“
This recipe has three spices: cardamom, ginger, and fennel. Cardamom and fennel give sweetness, whereas ginger gives warmth to this chai. If you are craving spicy flavors, add a small cinnamon stick, 2-3 cloves, and 3-4 peppercorns.
2 cups water
4 cardamom pods, crushed
1/2-inch piece of ginger, grated
1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds
2 teaspoon black tea leaves
1/3-1/2 cup whole milk
Raw sugar or honey to taste
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- Combine first four ingredients, and bring to a boil on medium heat.
- Turn off the heat and let it steep covered for 5-7 minutes.
- Add tea leaves and cook for 2 minutes.
- Stir in milk and cook for another minute or until heated through.
- Strain in cups.
- Add sugar or honey to taste.
Makes 2 cups