This is a work in progress.
First, let’s get one thing clear. Chai is tea. Tea is chai. The word chai is from an Indian source and the word tea, or more precisely ti, is from a Chinese source. In the end, they both refer to the same plant. In Europe and the Americas, different cultural associations have built up around the two words, but in most respects they are interchangeable.
Indians tend to prepare their chai by heating it in a pot with milk and water. When spices are available, they will often also throw those in the pot.
There is also the coffeeshop product called Chai. This is usually made from a very sweet, flavorful condensed syrup. I assume that it is imitating the flavor of spiced chai. Personally, I think of it as it’s own thing, separate from traditional chai that’s brewed in a pot.
General Advice When Making Chai
Know your ingredients. Find out the proper steep time for whatever teas you use. When you are using a new type of tea, make yourself a plain cup in order to get an idea of how much you want to use and how long you want to steep it. Do the same thing with your spices as well. Make an infusion with your chai spices and taste it before adding any tea or milk. This will give you an idea of what’s working and what’s not.
The boiling point is important. Some people would advise against ever using water that is at the boiling point when you are brewing tea. They prefer instead to use water that is closer to 80 degrees celsius. In my experience, this is more important with teas than with spices, and it depends on what you are doing with the tea. I prefer tea that has been boiled ever so briefly with milk already in it. When done right, this gives it a rich, creamy flavor. In any case, watching the boiling point is essential. If you overcook chai, it quickly becomes bitter and flavorless.
Experiment for yourself. Try toasting your spices before adding them to an infusion. Change around the timing to see how your results change. Try cooking the tea with a hearty amount of milk, letting the milk foam up a bit before you take it off the heat. (At chai stands in India, they often pick up the milk chai with a mug or ladel, pouring it back into the pot over and over. This keeps the chai at the boiling point without boiling over.) Have fun.
Basic Non-Spiced Chai: Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche’s Milk Tea
Wherever Khenpo Tsultrim Rinpoche visits, the cooks always have this simple tea on hand for every meal. I’ve grown quite fond of it myself. The amounts listed here make enough tea for 2 or 3 people. It works to scale the recipe as long as you maintain the same 3:3:1 ratio.
3 cups Water (Filtered or Spring)
3 bags Twining’s English Breakfast Tea*
1 cup Organic Whole Milk
Pre-Warm your teapot and set it aside. If necessary, wrap it in a towel to keep it warm.
Put the water and the teabags in a pot. I tie the teabags together so that they are easy to remove later. Put the pot on a high heat and have the milk ready to add. As soon as the pot starts to boil, add the milk. When it comes to a boil the second time, take it off the heat and remove the teabags. Transfer the tea into your pre-warmed teapot and serve promptly.
As with any tea, it is important to serve this tea fresh; It should not sit around for more than 30 minutes.
If you are using loose leaf tea, it is best to experiment a bit to figure out how much you want to use. As a rule of thumb, you could try using a tablespoon of Assam or Ceylon.
*Note: If you are making this for Khenpo Tsultrim Rinpoche, you should make every effort to use Twining’s English Breakfast tea. Other blends and other brands just aren’t a hit with him.
Basic Spiced Chai
Common Chai Spices
Dried Orange Peel
Garam Masala (spice blend including some of the above)
Less Common Chai Spices
Chai in a French Press
At World Merchants Spice Shop in Seattle, they stock a variety of black, green and white teas along with a selection of pre-mixed blends of chai spices. If you order tea to drink there, they will prepare it in a French Press (a.k.a Cafetiere). They are very careful about timing, aiming to brew a perfectly blended cup of chai. The fundamental idea is that each type of tea has its own ideal steeping time, usually between 3-5 minutes for black teas and between 1-3 minutes for green teas. After this point, the tea will become increasingly bitter and astringent, obscuring the more subtle pleasant tastes. Meanwhile, the spices we mix into chai can infuse for much longer, adding to the flavor of your chai without making it bitter.
Select your spice blend and the tea that you will be brewing into the chai.
For 2 cups of water, measure out about 3 tablespoons of spices. Break up the spices by pulsing them in a spice grinder or using a mortar and pestle. Pour them into the bottom of the French Press and pour the hot water over them*. Allow the spices to infuse alone for 4 to 6 minutes and then add the tea. Allow the tea to steep along with the spices for that particular tea’s steep time. When the time is up, push down the plunger and serve the chai. Add warm milk and sweetener to taste.
*Note: As noted before, some would advise against ever using water that is at the boiling point, preferring instead to use water that is closer to 80 degrees celsius.
When digging in a friend’s cabinet, I found a canister of “Wild Blueberry” tea bags from The Republic of Tea. The description read: “Fine Black Tea with Sweet Blueberries”. I was intrigued, so I threw one of those into my morning chai instead of plain black tea. The results were quite pleasing. I would have looked to buy a canister for myself, but the label on the lid indicated that this was a Limited Edition tea. “When It’s Gone, It’s Gone.” Luckily, there was a jar of dried blueberries in the cabinet, picked off of the wild bushes in the back yard. After tinkering with the amounts a bit, I settled on my own recipe:
For 3 cups of water, grind 2 to 4 teaspoons of dried Blueberries. Adjust the amount depending on your preference and the pungence of the berries. (The wild berries I was using were pretty dull in flavor.) Follow the instructions for Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche’s Milk Tea, adding the ground berries to your tea as early as possible in the brewing process.
I’ve found that I like this chai without any other spices to muck it up. I tried adding Cardamon, but it just seemed to deaden the flavor of the Blueberries.