This blog is about Chai tea, not because I’m hopping on the trendy chai wagon, or that I want you to rush to Starbucks and order a frothy mix, but because for decades now, my extended family has come together around this brew of ginger, cardamon, milk and tea, and this partnership of yumminess is a piece of our life I want to share. In fact, as I write this, my spouse is graciously making a big pot right now which we will sit and sip together shortly.
Chai goes back almost three decades for me, when I lived in Swami Muktananda’s ashram (Siddha Yoga is now under Swami Chidvilasananda). In the early dawn, in the large cafeteria, I witnessed this steaming drink being ladled out like a medicinal elixir into small juice glasses for the crowd queuing up before the morning’s chant. I never even tempted a taste as I was a nursing mom avoiding caffeine, but the wafting blend stuck in my visceral memory forever. Coincidentally, around this same time period, my oldest brother traveled to India to study and practice Vipassana meditation, a practice of which he is still involved. Upon his return, armed with stories of the infamous street chai makers, the chai wallahs, chai entered our family gatherings, at first as a revered member, but eventually as common as the toast and jam we served along side it.
My extended family is spread out, living on both coasts, so we are lucky to visit together twice a year. Christmas usually brings all to the Donomar Inn where we gather under one roof. The kitchen is quite busy before skiing or snowboarding, everyone up and searching for their gear, wandering in and out in various stages of dress. This scene is only made complete with the big pot of chai being prepared along with the Irish oats and fresh bread. You can smell the aromatic cardamon and ginger, even in the earliest stage of their being ground or grated, but once simmering in the pot the whole household is drawn into the kitchen. (As we now have several chai wallahs in our family, you will have someone leaning over your shoulder making suggestions, too!) As soon as it can be ladled, everyone grabs a cup, warming body and mind with all that earthy flavor. For several generations summer gatherings have been in the sweet hamlet of Belle Terre in Port Jefferson. Mornings start with an early run to the beach and a quick swim in the Long Island Sound. After comes the big breakfast, with everyone slicing L.I. peaches, working the toaster and of course chai brewing in a massive pot. Here, our chai is the last of the meal, sipped out on the patio overlooking the boats coming in and out of the breakwater.
My brother’s chai, hastily scribbled out for me years ago, is a sketch of a recipe: “Bring water and grated ginger to boil. Add whole milk, same amount as water. Sugar, just a bit then sweeten to taste. Tea, 1 tsp per cup and 1 for the pot. Add a pinch of Tea Marsala. Crush and add 1 or 2 tsp cardamom. Bring to a boil. Strain and serve.” He has stuck to this “true path chai” (his wife’s moniker) ever since, carefully measuring each ingredient along the way.
Perhaps the only difference with his chai making now is he omits the marsala and adds the sugar along with the cardamon. As my sister-in-law stated, “His system works and his chai is often sublime.” She herself is also a very respected chai wallah and has her own system worth revealing. She does not have to measure since she can judge amounts by look. She pours in the water, grates the ginger, lets this simmer and then throws in the tea. After that comes to a boil, she adds the milk and stops when it looks about right...(here is where trial and error matter!) Then she adds the cardamon, (unlike my brother, who adds the cardamon right at the end). She offered this sage opinion,
“Chai making is a personal thing when you're making it--but once you're sipping it, you forget the formula, let go of your "way" and surrender to the joy of a cup well-made. As long as it tastes good. Here's what we would never put in "true path chai": cloves, cinnamon, or pepper. Now and then, as a special treat in India someone might add "garam masala" to chai just before they hand you your cup, but for some reason, mass chai producers in the West have decided to include every possible spice in mass quantities in one cup, and you end up getting what I refer to as a "hot, spiced drink", but it is not chai to me.”
In my household we found the following to be a simple, yet consistently divine chai recipe.
4 cups water 1 tsp grated ginger
1-inch piece cinnamon sugar to taste
2 cloves 2 Tbsp black tea of your choice
2 green cardamon pods 3/4 cup milk
1 brown cardamon pod
Mix all the ingredients (except the milk) in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the milk and bring it to a boil again. Strain the tea and enjoy! (Bal Arneson, “Spice Goddess,” www.balahealthykitchen.com).
Our tweaks: First, we use Brooke Bond Red Label black tea, (although any inexpensive, simple, full-bodied Indian tea will do); we omit the cloves and only use green cardamon, but more of them, perhaps 4-6 pods; we use slightly more cinnamon and break the sticks in half; we add the tea right as the water starts to boil, then at boiling we lower the heat to simmer for 10 min.; we also add half and half to the 3/4 cup of whole milk making a full cup of liquid. Remember: chai is a sweet tea, so don’t skimp on the sugar; in the end this may be what brings out the complexity of the flavors.
So, what to do if you don’t have the ingredients or an adventurist cook? I don’t recommend you settle for the Starbucks Chai Tea Latte, where your drink will not only have the competing combinations of black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and star anise, but ginger juice, vanilla and too much sweetener. Instead, try a Chai Filterbags by Tazo Tea (also found at Starbucks). There will still be an explosion of spices, but you can add some steamed milk and a sweetener you choose, and be momentarily satisfied until you can track down a real tea shop in your area, or try your hand using the recipe I suggested.
Chai is not a specialty drink only good for certain folks, in fact, cardamon and cinnamon are good for all doshas. This tea aids digestion, and ginger has natural anti-inflamary properties, so it eases your aches and pains. All the spices are very warming too, so you can enjoy this drink any time of day, and even omit the black tea altogether for a yummy decaffeinated nightcap. Chai is the perfect soothing drink, coming in from a brisk walk or hike, sitting with family or friends, preparing for a day of work or fun, nothing beats a cup of chai to bring you back to you .