Monday, November 19, 2012

Masala Chai Tea

Why not just call it chai?  Why masala chai?

By itself, the word chai is merely the generic word for tea in many African, Middle Eastern and Asian languages. For those of us that speak English, the term chai is synomous with what we would consider masala chai, a spiced milk tea distinct from other types of tea.

Up until about a year ago I had never experienced the deliciousness that is an authentic cup of masala chai. It wasn't something that I had very often, but I would occasionally order a chai latte at a coffee shop and think it was the best thing ever. Sugary, milky and spicy with enough caffeine to put a little pep in my step but not make me feel like I just did a line of cocaine.  Perfection.

Over the years I have gravitated towards a eating a more unrefined whole foods diet and have become obsessed  more inclined to make most of my meals and snacks from scratch.  I had googled the ingredients for the chai concentrate that I saw my barista using last time I got my latte on and was shocked to see sugar as the first ingredient on the list (actually I wasn't.. THAT'S why it tasted so freaking good), followed by honey, "spices", black tea and the ubiquitous "natural flavors".  Now I was on a mission. I HAD to figure out what spices were used so I could make it at home.  I could taste a hint of cinnamon and cardamom, maybe some ginger, but beyond that I couldn't identify what was in it.. probably because it's pretty damn hard to pinpoint what natural flavors taste like.

I searched the internet for a recipe only to learn that there is no fixed preparation when it comes to masala chai and most families have their own versions of the tea. Based on the fact that there are so many possible preparations, masala chai can be considered a class of tea rather that a specific kind. 

But alas, after a good amount of research... here's what I found.

When making masala chai, typically a strong black tea, such as Assam is used so that the spices and sweeteners don't become overpowering. Different teas are used in different regions; most chai in India is made with black tea whereas Kashmiri Chai is brewed with gunpowder tea.
Some people choose to take their chai unsweetened, but most people agree (myself included) that a good amount of sugar is needed to bring out the intricate flavor of the spices.  Plain white sugar, honey, jaggery, palm or coconut sugar can be used.
I once made the mistake of ordering chai without milk because I'm a bonafide milkaphobe (real word). Bad idea.  It tasted like tannic spices, although some people actually prefer it this way.  Usually whole or sweetened condensed milk is used, but I've made it with almond or soy milk with great results.

The traditional masala chai is brewed with different proportions of so called "warming spices". The spice mixture called karha, uses a base of ground ginger and cardamom pods. Other spices are added to this base depending on the region.  Most masala chai found on the streets, in homes or restaurants adds cinnamon, star anise and/or fennel seeds, peppercorns and cloves. Traditionally cardamom is the dominant spice, supplemented by other spices such as cloves, ginger and black pepper.  The traditional composition of spices varies by climate and region in Southern and Southwestern Asia.  For example, in Western India, fennel and black pepper are avoided.  The Kashmiri version used green tea rather than black and has a more subtle blend of flavorings; almonds, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and sometimes saffron. Other possible spices may include nutmeg, coriander, cumin seed or licorice root.

Now that you know more than you probably wanted to know about chai... here's a recipe for ya'll.

Masala Chai Tea (makes 1 8 oz. serving, can easily be doubled)
From The Kitchn

3/4 cup water
2-4 whole green cardamom pods, smashed
1-2 thin slices fresh ginger
1 1-inch cinnamon stick
1 piece star anise
3/4 cup milk (I used almond)
1 1/2 teaspoons loose black tea leaves
Sweetener, to taste (I prefer honey)

In a small saucepan, combine the water, cardamom, ginger, cinnamon stick and star anise. Bring the mixture to a boil then lower the heat and simmer for a few minutes until the mixture is fragrant. Add the milk and tea leaves, and simmer for another minute then turn off the heat and let steep for 2 minutes. Pour into a cup through a fine mesh sieve. Discard the leaves and spices. Add sweetener, to taste.
If you want deeply flavorful tea in the morning, follow these alternate directions starting the night before.
In a small saucepan, combine the water, cardamom, cinnamon stick and star anise. Do not add the ginger yet. Bring to a boil then turn it off and cover the pan. In the morning, add the sliced ginger and bring to a boil then lower the heat and simmer for a few minutes until the mixture is fragrant. Add the milk and tea leaves, and simmer for another minute then turn off the heat and let steep for 2 minutes. Pour into a cup through a fine mesh sieve. Discard the tea and spices. Add sweetener, to taste.

1 comment:

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