Why Chai?

By / Magazine / June 17th, 2011 / 1

Why chai? Why try chai, indeed? In the constant Western quest to stay at the vanguard of the latest fad, there has been an amusing (if startlingly large) cross-Canada throng trading in their ubiquitous morning espresso for a cup of chai tea. What is amusing, in part, is that this throng is learning to enjoy and appreciate a drink with thousands of years of history. And unlike so many things we consume, this amazing beverage is both satisfying and healthy.

Across much of south Asia, the word for tea is “chai,” and “chai tea” is an anglicized version of the name for milk and spiced tea, “masala chai.” Of course, coffee is now an omnipresent drink in much of India, but throughout southeast Asia, a common sight in the rabbit warren of streets are vendors called “chai wallahs.” Even in today’s movie culture, “chai wallahs” were common walk-ons in many scenes of the Academy Award-winning Slumdog Millionaire. And no, Starbucks may not have reached Delhi, but Irani Cafés or Chai Khanas are to be found everywhere.

So who won’t warm up to chai? It’s probably not for that (effete) ultra coffee aficionado: you know, the guy in front of you at Starbucks who only has his latte from mountain coffee, grown at an altitude of between 350-450 metres, ground within 36 hours and roasted within 17. No, this is a wholly satisfying drink with an almost infinite combination of spices, tea and milk. Precise measurements are irrelevant; only your taste buds count.

So just what is chai? It is a milky, spiced tea beverage, and it is likely that you’ve been attracted to try it, perhaps sitting in a Second Cup, and smelling the captivating aroma coming from the person sitting at the next table. This old Indian brew typically consists of a black tea such as Assam, Darjeeling or Gunpowder to which has been added a range of spices including cardamom, cinnamon and clove, and nutmeg, often with a few more ephemeral additions including ginger, invariably some star anise, and always some milk. For a sweetener, either sugar or honey is fine.

The result is always a highly aromatic drink that is “timely” throughout the day and evening [unlike coffee]. Whether you subscribe to homeopathic helpers or pass it all off as placebo effect, chai is a delicious drink whose benefits include that it’s a powerful natural anti-oxidant, circulatory system stimulant, and both a stress reliever and mood elevator. Just the last two are enough to make it worth drinking. You can write off these health benefits, but this combination of spices and black tea have been used in Eastern medicine for 10 centuries or more. Fairly convincing! But what seems astonishing is that I have yet to encounter anyone who’s tried it and not become a convert to the chai tea craze. Huh! A craze with value-added.

It first appeared in the coffeehouses across Canada, but authentic masala chai is now found in many supermarkets and food specialty stores. Of course, the best way to enjoy it – that is, a bona fide cup of masala chai – is to make it from scratch. While there are instant chai tea mixes in powder form, authentic homemade masala chai has a much richer flavour and fuller aroma. This is not to denigrate the boxed varieties found in the tea/coffee section of your favourite supermarket. They provide a quicker chai fix that’s still heartwarming. But there’s something gratifying about taking 10 or 15 minutes (while multitasking) and making it yourself.

The ultimate cup of chai tea is an open pursuit, because the choice of spices and combinations are infinite. It’s easy to make, and there are virtually no recipe rules. (Well, maybe just one).

The traditional method of preparing plain chai involves brewing and simmering tea leaves over sustained heat, rather than slipping the tea leaves in preheated boiling water and leaving it to cool. Oh yes, and to that rule: limit the time that the tea leaves sit in the boiling water. While the combination of spices you choose will tend to give a deeper, more complex taste over time, the tea leaves can become bitter if boiled for more than 15 minutes, when bitter tannins are released. So if you want to extract the max, put the spices in first and add the tea leaves a few minutes later.

It’s as simple as simmering or boiling the mixture of loose tea leaves, sweeteners (sugar or sugar substitutes), and whole spices, and when “done to your taste,” straining into a cup. The milk that is added not only brings the flavours together, but adds richness to the drink. Traditionally, milk composes a quarter to half a serving of masala chai.

So there really is no fixed recipe for this delicious and increasingly popular drink. You can do your own house blend and keep refining it — forever! The typical mix involves so-called “warm” spices like cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, fennel seeds, black peppercorns, and cloves. Although cardamom normally plays a dominant role, it’s not uncommon to use a touch of saffron or a pinch of salt, even a bit of nutmeg, or for style, to add a couple of rose petals.

A particularly inviting variation is the chai latte, often found in coffee houses and easily made at home. Just steam some milk using your espresso machine and ladle some across the top of the tea, and there it is! An authentic chai latte.

There is no rule saying that the drink has to be hot. Another inviting alternative is to make a slushy milkshake-style beverage, another coffee house favourite. It’s a summertime delight — fulfilling and cool.

If pressed for time, the supermarkets that sell masala chai concentrate or syrup also offer pre-mixed tea-based syrups with sweeteners and spices, which certainly work well. The only consumer effort required is to dilute with milk, or water, or indeed both, to create a highly flavourful hot or cold beverage. So at home, you can use either instant mixes or liquid concentrates which you brew (not steep) into a pot of highly concentrated spiced tea.

Other variations? There’s virtually no end to the diversity of recipes. Like making vegetable soup, every recipe is different, but always delicious. Try putting the simple spiced tea in a blender, add a bit of ice, and top the combination with some whipped cream, and voilà, a chai frappuccino! Really time-stressed? You can microwave chai too. Alternatives? One commercial producer adds a bit of vanilla or chocolate, which relegates the traditional masala spices to a relatively minor role. In my not-humble opinion, a disappointment. But enfin, there are no rules. Only the pleasure of making variations of variations. The result is invariably rewarding.


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