Good Life

Eats & drinks: Find your signature chai

Chai is made by combining spices, loose black tea and warm milk.
Chai is made by combining spices, loose black tea and warm milk. Photo provided

This article originally ran in January 2006 when graduate student Anar Pitre did a workshop on how to make chai for Slow Food Central PA members. Homemade chai is nothing like the overly sweet concentrates that many coffee shops use today. Try brewing your own — or try one of the many great homemade chai blends available at Webster’s Bookstore Café in downtown State College.

“This is the distinctive smell I wake up to every morning in India,” said Anar Pitre, as she sniffed the ginger, cloves, cinnamon and cardamom simmering in a deep pot. “My parents start their day with chai routinely, and so every morning we have a chai brewing pot and whole milk warming pot on the stove by 7 a.m.” Though far from Pune, a 3-mile drive from Mumbai, Pitre brings a bit of India to her own kitchen in State College when she brews her own.

“Each household has their own spice blend, called masala, that is distinctive, yet similar. The spices also change with the time of year — lemongrass is used when people start coughing in winter since a ginger-lemongrass combo has a soothing effect on the throat. It is a great herbal remedy.”

Chai is hot these days and making it from scratch is not difficult. Simmer whole spices like cinnamon, clove, ginger and cardamom in hot water for a few minutes and then add loose black tea. Steep the mixture and then sweeten and add warm milk. The combination of spices can also include lemongrass, whole peppercorns, star anise, nutmeg — Pitre sometimes adds a sprig of rosemary to her pot. Chai is infinitely adaptable.

The word “chai” derives from the simple Chinese word “cha,” the word for tea, and pronounced “chah.” The word “cha” endures in many nations, including Eastern and central Europe; Central, south and Southwest Asia; and northern and eastern Africa, where it means tea with milk.

Tea is the world’s oldest hot beverage, drunk more than anything else. A cup of coffee charges you up; a cup of tea comforts you. A cup of chai means you are taking that comfort to the luxury level by creating your own signature masala and spending a few minutes steeping, brewing and straining. Though there are increasingly more chai mixes, concentrates and powders available in the hot beverage aisle and at coffee shops, there is no substitute for brewing your own version.

Chai ingredients deconstructed:

Tea: You can use loose black tea or tea bags. Green tea is very astringent, so it is best avoided unless you are seeking a special effect. Tea contains powerful antioxidants that are beneficial to the body.

Ginger: Use fresh ginger root to strengthen the digestive and respiratory system; relieves congestion, soothes sore throats, prevents motion sickness

Whole cloves: Invigorating and restorative; helps colds and flu

Cinnamon sticks: Soothes nausea and flatulence

Peppercorns: Heat; adding whole peppercorns will provide an internal warmth

Cardamom: Stimulates the mind; considered an aphrodisiac

Lemongrass: Good for colds

Nutmeg: In small amounts, adds rich flavor, aids digestion; large amounts can be toxic

Sweetener: Brown sugar, white sugar, honey or your preferred sweetener

Milk: This is one instance where whole milk is beneficial because the fat in the milk provides a smoother vehicle for delivering the many flavors of the spices, but choose your favorite fat level of milk or soy milk.

Anne Quinn Corr regularly posts to the blog HowToEatAndDrink.com and can be reached at chef corr@gmail.com. 

CHAI — INDIAN SPICED TEA

Using the spice list, experiment until you find the chai masala that pleases you the most.

Makes two 12-ounce servings

2 cups water

2 slices of fresh ginger root

1 inch stick of cinnamon

8 whole cardamom pods, crushed

8 whole cloves

1 cup whole milk

2 tablespoons brown sugar

1 tablespoon loose black tea

Put the water into a saucepan. Add the ginger, cinnamon, cardamom and cloves and bring to a boil. Cover, turn the heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes. Heat the milk up in a separate pot until a skin starts to form on the surface but don’t allow it to boil. Add the tea leaves to the spice mixture, cover and remove from the heat. After 3-4 minutes, stir the sugar into the spiced tea and then add the hot milk. Strain the chai into two mugs for serving.

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