Unlocking the Mysteries of Chai Tea

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History, Recipe, Health Benefits

Close your eyes. Relax. Imagine yourself in a far away, exotic land. Listen to the soft music blowing in the breeze. Smell the fragrance of spices and … no wait, those aromas aren’t from some foreign village; you’re at the local cafĂ©. They’re radiating from a cup of chai on the table next to you. Chai (rhymes with “sky”) is one of the newest “hot” beverages in the U.S. The word chai means tea in the Middle East, Eastern Asia, and as a Swahili word for tea in Eastern Africa. What we are calling chai in the U.S. is marsala chai – spiced tea. Chai can actually be traced back over 5000 years to the Hindu natural healing system called “Ayurveda” as a combination of spices, herbs and teas used for their health benefits as a digestive aid. Although the spices used and method of preparation vary from region to region, chai imparts a warming, soothing effect, acts as a natural digestive aid and promotes a sense of well being.

The spices and herbs used all add their own health benefits to the combination. Tea leaves provide antioxidants which are known to fight cancer-causing cells, lower cholesterol levels and reduce blood pressure. Cloves invigorate and help generate heat in the body, making them useful during the cold and flu season. Ginger is known to strengthen and heal the digestive and respiratory systems, fight off colds and flu, remove congestion, soothes sore throats, and relieves body aches. Cinnamon acts as a stimulant to the other herbs and spices enabling them to work faster. Black pepper adds warmth to the body. Cardamom stimulates the mind and gives clarity. Fennel seed calms the digestive system. Nutmeg adds a rich flavor to the blend. Other spices include carob, vanilla and licorice; although not in the traditional recipes.

Chai is an everyday beverage for Indian and other Asian households. It is sold wherever people gather, such as trains, bus stations and marketplaces. The chai vendors (wallahs) brew their tea in huge kettles over small charcoal fires. The chai is served in unglazed terracotta pots or saucers called “kullarhs” which the wallah may have actually made himself over an open fire. The unglazed pots impart an earthy flavor to the chai. Part of this “chai ritual” involves smashing the pots after drinking. Chai is always safe to drink in these countries because the tea is always kept hot and the serving pots are only used once.

Chai has been served in the U.S. since the 1940’s in Indian restaurants. During the 1960’s and 70’s chai drinking became more widespread as the interest in Eastern religions and yoga developed and ashrams (spiritual meeting places) appeared throughout the country. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that chai was served in cafes; first in Santa Cruz, then Boulder, and on to Portland Oregon. Today chai can be found just about everywhere but it’s not the same. Chances are you will not find a traditionally brewed chai but rather one made from a prepackaged concentrated liquid or from an instant powder. Brewing your own chai is an experience not to be missed although it may take a few tries to find that “just right” flavor. It allows you to tailor the blend to your preference or mood, to sweeten or not, to use soy-based milk, or use a different base tea such as green or rooibus (a caffeine-free herbal tea); plus you know it’s fresh.

The techniques of preparation and proportions of spices, tea, sweetener and milk vary from region to region and even among families. The family chai recipe is handed down through the generations as a family tradition. Some boil the tea, spices and milk; some never boil. Boiling verses adding the milk and spices to hot tea produces a different taste and character to the finished chai. A few points are always agreed on; cardamom is necessary, if using ginger, use freshly grated, the chai needs to be sweetened to bring out the full flavor of the spices, and it’s best to grind your own fresh spices. The best supplier of organic & wildcrafted herbs is Mountain Rose Herbs.

Here’s a simple recipe to start the inspiration.

2 cups water
2 cardamom pods or about 1/8 teaspoon seeds
1 cinnamon stick
2 whole cloves
2 black peppercorns
2 teaspoons loose, black tea or rooibus
2 teaspoons honey
1/2 cup milk or soy milk
1 tablespoon peeled and sliced fresh ginger

Crush the spices with a mortar and pestle or other method. Combine the first 5 ingredients in a stainless steel or nonstick saucepan and simmer over low heat for 10 minutes. Add the tea and simmer 5 minutes. Stir in the milk and honey. When back to a simmer, add the ginger. After one minute strain the tea into cups.

With the evenings starting to cool off, start experimenting (write it down!). Close your eyes, relax, and let the exotic flavors of chai take you away to some foreign land; though you might not want to smash your cup when it’s empty.

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