Chai Tea

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Few things say fall more clearly to me than a hot cup of chai tea.

Something about that ginger-y, spicy sweetness seems so perfectly suited to golden leaves, blue skies, and frosty mornings.

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Like many of you, I’ve tasted a lot of renditions of chai tea in my life.  Some delicious.  Some not so much.  It’s one of those things (like chocolate cake, maybe?) that pervades our culture – present everywhere, but rarely excellent.  But in college, I got my first real taste of what chai could be, from some of the international students and missionaries’ kids.

These students, who had grown up in various parts of Africa, would hold regular chai parties, where late nights of board games, acoustic guitars, talk, and silliness were fueled by cups of the deepest, richest chai I’d ever tasted.  The full-bodied sweetness in those steaming mugs bore absolutely nothing in common with the spicy water I’d tasted from tea bags of so-called chai.

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I was hooked.

After graduation, I went searching for the secret to that perfect cup.  I asked my international friends for the recipe, only to be told that that they used a special spice blend, purchased in Africa whenever they visited their families.  Great.

I tried different pre-made chai powders and liquids, and found a few that were tasty in their own ways, but not really the same thing at all.  Searching for homemade chai spice recipes just left me bewildered.  The ingredients and proportions varied wildly, and none of the recipes I tried came even close to replicating the taste I was looking for.

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And then we had a visit from one of my husband’s relatives, a beautiful woman of Indian descent who’d who’d grown up in Singapore.  I told her my chai tea woes, and she went to work.  After a bit of googling, she produced a recipe that she thought was worth trying.  The spice mix smelled wonderful as we were blending it, and upon tasting, our resident chai expert deemed it authentic.  It was delicious.

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This would have been enough for normal people, right?  Delicious Indian chai, approved by someone who had a right to know.  But no.  I had a memory.  And this recipe wasn’t it.

What that recipe was, was the keystone.  The proportions weren’t what I remembered, but the flavors were there.  It was close enough that I finally felt like I had a starting point.

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And so I tweaked.  And tweaked some more.  And after many tries (such a hard life…), and many cups of increasingly delicious chai, I did it.  I found the taste from my memories.  And maybe, maybe, made it just a little bit better.

I hope you enjoy it.

 

Chai Tea

Yields 8 cups of chai tea and 1 cup of chai masala (enough for about 24 batches of chai)

Adapted from Tarla Dalal

I prefer to grind all of my spices fresh for the chai masala, except for the ginger and cinnamon.  This gives the best flavor and helps the powder to stay fresher longer.  All measurements are given for ground spices – you’ll need a little (maybe 10%) more whole spices to yield the correct amount once ground.

Most of these ingredients can be found pretty easily in a normal grocery store.  You may need to go to the international section or to an ethnic food store to find green cardamom pods (it’s important to use the whole green pod, not just the smaller black seeds).  Or you could look online.

This is my preferred source for organic black tea.  We go through tea like other people go through coffee, and this recipe in particular whips through it pretty fast, so I prefer to buy in bulk.

Using equal parts of water and milk for the liquid base gives a wonderfully lush, full-bodied texture to this chai.  I use 2% milk, although whole and 1% would both work well.  If you only have nonfat, you may want to add a little cream or half and half to compensate.

Chai Spice (Chai Masala)
1 tablespoon ground pepper
4 tablespoons ground green cardamom pods
2 1/4 teaspoons ground cloves
2 1/4 teaspoons ground (or fresh grated) nutmeg
3 tablespoons powdered ginger
3 tablespoons ground cinnamon

Chai Tea
4 cups milk
2 teaspoons Chai Masala
4 cups boiling water
6 tablespoons loose leaf black tea
2/3 cup sugar

Prepare the Chai Masala:
If grinding your spices fresh (recommended), measure out a heaping amount of the measurements listed for pepper*, cardamom, and cloves, grind with a spice grinder or mortar and pestle**, and measure out the amount of ground spice listed in the recipe (you’ll need to grind each spice separately).  Grate the nutmeg using a microplane or the smallest setting on a standard box grater, and measure the ground amount.

Mix all the ingredients for the chai masala together and store in an airtight container.  The powder should stay fresh for about 6 months, although you may want to increase the amount of powder you use in your chai toward the end of that time period.

Make the Chai Tea:
Combine milk and chai masala in a large nonstick pot and bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally.  Add boiling water and bring chai mixture to a boil, stirring frequently.  As soon as the liquid reaches a boil (watch it carefully – it likes to boil over), remove the pot from the heat and add the tea and sugar, mixing well to incorporate.  Let steep, covered, for 5 min, stirring occasionally.  Strain the tea through a fine mesh strainer and discard the solids.  Serve the chai hot or cold.

Extra tea can be stored in the fridge and served cold or gently rewarmed.

Variations – For a brighter take on the traditional chai flavor, add a few fresh mint leaves to the hot chai right before serving.

 

*Or use a pepper grinder
**The green cardamom pod exteriors may not grind up much, especially if you’re using a mortar and pestle.   This is totally okay.

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