by Denise Reynolds
HAALo’s Enchantress of Spices
I’ve been drinking chai for years, but I was in for a treat when I travelled to India last year. I used to make it with commercial tea bags or occasionally with a bulk blend of dried gingerroot, cardamom seeds, and cinnamon bark chips. In the US we call this spicy infusion “chai” but in India, chai is just a general term for tea. Spiced tea is referred to as “masala chai.” It dates back 5,000 years to the ancient courts of Siam and India and can be a combination of many different spices.
The more recent addition of black tea became popular in the early 1900s when the British started encouraging Indian factories to provide tea breaks for their workers in an effort to create a new market for their India-grown tea. It took about 50 years before the Indian people embraced black tea as part of their daily ritual. Though the British were disappointed by the minimal tea ratio to milk and spices, the addition of black tea stuck and masala chai with black tea is still a thriving cultural beverage!
During my stay in India, every morning after meditation and yoga, the entire group would eagerly await the masala chai, like it was the nectar of the gods. It was nothing like the chai I drank at home! This had a bright sharpness of fresh ginger that was soothed by the milk and sugar. Such excitement and radiant smiles as cups of chai were poured and passed around. Sharing this comforting drink with my sisters after our morning practice was such a treat, as it was for every meal. I loved the chai and the ritual of it all; the expectation after being awake for two hours, wrapping my chilly hands around the warm cup, and sipping the spicy sweetness of this traditional drink. Masala chai was available in every café, was served complimentary in some shops to encourage purchases, and there were chai-wallahs offering masala chai from carts every block or more.
When I came home I was determined to make authentic chai but without so much sugar as it is so heavily sweetened in India. I prefer to avoid sweeteners in my beverages all together, but the flavors of chai really don’t come together without at least a hint of sweetness. I experimented with different combinations of spices, milk, and sweeteners based on several “authentic” chai recipes I found online but kept coming back to the basic recipe from one of my retreat sisters: ginger, cardamom, and cinnamon.
I love the treat and routine of making it for myself, grating the fresh ginger, popping the cardamom pods in the mortar and pestle, breaking up the Ceylon cinnamon, enjoying the way the house smells, straining it and pouring frothed milk over the top, sprinkling the top with cardamom and cinnamon powder, making it a beautiful gift to drink, exotic scents to smell, and warm nurturance in my hands. Making it for a friend is truly a tea ceremony for me; all goodness and love being infused into each step of the process, pouring it into pottery cups, and setting it on a tray with a few whole spices to make for a beautiful presentation. And, I learned that floating one of the simmered cardamom pods in a friend’s cup is a sign of favor! I encourage you to try the different spices and various amounts of each to see what you like best, as well as trying out the recipe below.
Here are a few tips for experimenting:
- Use a microplane grater to shred fresh ginger (leaving the peel on is fine)
- Keep dried ginger root pieces on hand to use in place of fresh ginger
- Try either Ceylon or cassia cinnamon
- Pop open the cardamom pods to infuse the water with more of their flavor, keeping only the ones with dark brown/black seeds.
- Authentic chai has the milk simmered in with the infusion for the last few minutes. I prefer to use almond milk (warmed) and add it after the tea is done.
- For a real treat, froth your milk (for dairy substitutes try almond milk or canned coconut milk without additives) and sprinkle powdered cardamom and cinnamon over the top.
- I like my chai with a bit more ginger and cardamom and would personally double the amount of these two ingredients in the recipe below.
- Spices to try: ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, black peppercorn, pink peppercorn, star anise, clove, fennel seed, anise seed, allspice, vanilla bean.
Authentic Chai Tea
4 black peppercorns
1 stick of cinnamon
6 green cardamom pods
2 tablespoons fresh ginger root, peeled and sliced
OR 1-2 tablespoons dried gingerroot pieces
1 tablespoon strong loose black tea or 2 black tea bags
3 cups water
1 cup whole milk
2 tablespoons brown sugar (or honey)
Put the spices together in a saucepan with the water and bring to a rolling boil. Cover, and let simmer 5 minutes. Remove the saucepan from the heat and let steep 10 minutes. Return to a boil. Remove from heat and add the tea, let steep 3 to 5 minutes. Strain mixture and return to saucepan. Add milk and sugar and stir for one minute over low heat. Serve immediately.
Ingredients for Recipe:
- Dried ginger root
- Cardamom pods
- Cinnamon stick
- Black peppercorn
- Loose black tea
Ingredients for experimenting:
- Pink peppercorn
- Star anise
- Anise seed
- Fennel seed
- Loose green tea
- Powdered cardamom for sprinkling on top
- Powdered cinnamon for sprinkling on top
- Mortar and pestle
- Mesh strainer
Denise Reynolds, The Enchantress of Spices, is a culinary sensualist and founder of The Sensual Feast. She consults and teaches cooking workshops offering the opportunity to delight in the preparation, flavor, and deep nourishment of food as a gateway to pleasure and sensuality. Learn to experience the kitchen as sacred space and how, as we play in the kitchen, we have the opportunity to inspire our lives again and again with every meal. Check out her Facebook page The Sensual Feast for event details and the following video for a little taste of her classes. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F5MXuMp1oA0