The perfect Chai (recipe included)

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

I've been working on my ideal of the "perfect" chai flavor for a long time. For some reason, I have an ethereal notion stuck in my head (and tastebuds) that there exists the perfect flavor of chai. I don't know where this notion comes from because true authentic Indian chai that's served in homes and on the street in India is quite far afield of my "ideal" chai flavor. I don't even have a problem with it being specific only to me; that is, it would be okay with me if others didn't find it as enjoyable or perfect as I do. I've discussed this idea with several people, and while it's always a bit perplexing, others have expressed that they too have a yearning for their own perfect chai flavor.

One of the reasons for this meditation on chai is how woefully disappointing I've always found nearly every version and concoction of chai I've found in coffee shops, tea taverns, book stores, and grocers. After being disappointed over and over again, I eventually gave up on trying other people's versions of chai and started only drinking my own. I still catch myself being attracted to "Chai" when I see it on a menu, but with age has come the wisdom of knowing that it's always a bad idea.

Here's my current chai recipe. I'm constantly modifying the spice mix to get it closer to my ideal of the perfect chai flavor. But in reality, "perfect" chai is just the flavor you like, so I encourage you to experiment on your own to make it closer and closer to your ideal.

Spice mix

  • 1 teaspoon whole cloves
  • 2.5 teaspoons black peppercorns
  • 1.5 teaspoons cardamom seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 2.5 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 2 whole star anise
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

I think it's best to use whole seeds when possible. Buying ground spices can be risky because they can loose potency and sort of go stale after they're ground. I then use a coffee grinder to grind them coarsely. I think there's a rationale that says not to grind them to get more flavor out of the seeds (and instead just crush them), but I haven't experimented much with this with chai. I get almost all my spices from the local cooperative grocery because I can buy them in bulk, which is often times extraordinarily cheaper than what you can get in the grocery store. Also, they have a wider variety of spices. Some spices, like star anise, I usually get at an Indian grocer. 

In addition to the spice mix, there's also the process of how to make it and the type of tea to use. I have found that high quality tea makes for poor chai. Instead, I think it's made better by buying poor quality Indian tea (from Indian grocer). It comes in bags usually and is formed into granules, not tea leaves. One of the tricks to the process is oversteeping the tea to increase the level of tannins, which ads the distinctive bittery flavor that's balanced by the sweetener you add. 

Chai

  • 4-5 cups of over-steeped, poor quality, granulized Indian black tea
  • 3-5 cups of milk (I use almond milk because I'm predominantly vegan)
  • 2-4 teaspoons of spice mix

So, I boil-steep a few tablespoons of this tea (vary the amount of tea by how much of the bitter tannin flavor and how caffeinated you want the chai to be) in a teapot over the stove for a little more than 5 minutes. At the same time, in a large cast iron kettle (it doesn't have to be a cast iron kettle, that's just what I have) I heat about equal amounts of milk as the amount of tea you're making. The more milk to tea ratio, the creamier your chai will be. For me, the best ratio is a little less milk than tea. As I'm heating the milk, I add the spice mix to the milk (how much spice mix you'll have to work out to your taste, but one beginning point is about 1 teaspoon for every 3-4 cups of chai). I heat the milk slowly because milk can scald and boil over really easily. My goal is to always have it slowly coming to a boil right when my tea is done steeping. At this point I add the tea to the milk and spices, bring the combined mixture to a boil, and simmer it for 5 more minutes. I then cut off the heat and let it sit for at least another 20 minutes (I always want to make sure the spices have plenty of time to infuse into the tea). 

Then when I'm ready to drink, I pour it into my teacup over a strainer (optional if your spices are ground), and sweeten it to taste with sugar or honey.

Enjoy!

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