homemade chai tea
It’s all Christine’s fault, really. There I am innocently browsing through my favorite food blogs early Sunday morning and not really expecting to find anything. Then I chance upon her post on masala chai tea, or chai tea. So poetic is her recounting of sipping chai tea at London’s Camden Market and feeling at bliss with the world, that soon I feel that I need a cup of chai. Thank goodness I still have the rest of the day to hunt down the ingredients for it!
Chai tea is an aromatic spiced tea from India. A blend of several spices ”“ cloves, cinnamon, ginger, cardamom and pepper it’s a mixture nuanced only by the individual’s taste and preference. The spice blend is added to a boiling pot of loose-leaf tea and milk is often added. It’s a drink that I believe, eases and empowers.
Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf’s chai tea
While chai tea itself is centuries old, I was only introduced to it when Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf (CBTL) debuted in Manila. It’s still my favorite coffee shop up to now, and their chai tea is a drink that I’m enchanted with, most especially during the holidays when the store brings out their Winter Dream blend, a stronger, more robust chai tea with a kick of cinnamon. I’ve actually bought the tea and the vanilla powder that CBTL uses for their chai both outrageously expensive, I tell you ”“ but my resulting beverage didn’t even come close to CBTL’s. What a pricey failure. I was resigned to getting my chai fix only from CBTL.
Roshan’s chai tea
Then one day when Roshan and I were at her house for tea and dessert, she made me a chai tea made only from cardamom, loose-leaf tea, and milk. It was a revelation to me: who knew tea could taste so good? And how simple it was to make it!
Back to my chai tea adventure: A quick stop at Spices n Flavours makes short work of all the spices I need. I also test the patience of the store attendant as I sniff my way through the loose-leaf teas. Somehow I don’t feel that a Chinese tea like jasmine or oolong or even chrysanthemum or dried lavender will make the kind of chai tea I want.
I’m keeping this tea under lock and key
So I head to Metro Gaisano Supermarket inside Market! Market! This is where I go when I need some hard to find ingredients. The store’s Asian section alone rivals that of Manila’s other large supermarkets. This is a truly underrated place. Rifling through the shelves, I don’t really know what type of tea I’m looking for except that I’ll know it when I see it. So I’m ecstatic when I chance upon a box of Brooke Bond Red Label Tea. Manufactured in Mumbai, India and having “… the goodness of ashwagandha (Indian ginseng), mulethi (liquorice), tulsi (holy basil), ginger, and cardamom it couldn’t have been more appropriate.
loose leaf tea
Using the two recipes that Christine mentioned in her post plus the advice from Roshan, I set about making my own spice tea blend. I use six different spices, dried not ground, each contributing its own flavor profile: cinnamon for sweetness and warm fragrance; cardamom pods for pungence, and the distinct aroma of lemon; cloves for slight astringence; ginger for its light, hot, citric flavor; black peppercorns which have the ability to enhance other flavors while adding its own; and nutmeg for the redolence of fall. Considering all the health benefits attributed to spices and the sheer number of them in this drink, this should be one healthy potion! I guess other spices can be used for chai such as star anise, mace, a vanilla bean even, but I want the spices to work together and not overwhelm one another. I am making chai tea after all, and not potpourri.
spices for chai tea: (l-r) peppercorn, cardamom, cinnamon stick, cloves
It’s important to smash, bash, or crush the spices a bit before throwing them into the pot so that they release their full essence. I add some milk, water, and sugar then put the pot on the heat. And then I wait.
And wait some more.
I let the spices simmer in the liquid for a full half hour, while I circle the pot like a vulture eyeing her prey. By then my kitchen smells like a spice den, spicy and inviting. Hmm, a lover’s lair. Heehee.
chai tea at the ready
I strain the odorous liquid into tea cups, little wisps of steam curling upwards tickling my nose. Now a honey-bronze color, the liquid has reduced by a fourth. I put my nose close to the cup and inhale deeply: only a tremulous waft of cinnamon comes to greet me. Then I take a sip. As a general rule, the first swallow induces a long interlude of silence.
My mouth is embraced by a wave of sweetness then is engulfed by the creamy richness of milk. Feeling the sear of heat on my tongue, I taste the various wild pronouncements of each spice smoky, spicy, flowery, crisp, sharp, moody, bright. Each sip is a different story, each story begs for another sip. Every swallow ends with the resounding exuberance of cardamom and the bite of ginger at the back of my throat. I am awash in a haze of perfumed pleasure.
Maybe I should invite Christine over for some ginger scones and chai to thank her for getting me into this.
Of the thousands of concoctions that slide down throats in the name of chai tea, this possesses the most satisfying complexity and depth of flavor I've come across. Amounts given are approximate. Find your middle ground between overindulgence and understatement.
For each serving:
1½ cups cool water, preferably bottled
¼ cup evaporated milk (or cream, if you're feeling indulgent)
2 tsp loose-leaf tea (I like Brooke Bond, but try to get the loose-leaf teas from any of the local Indian food stores)
½ a cinnamon stick (break it into shards or crush it coarsely with a mortar and pestle)
5 green cardamom pods, crushed
¼ - ½ -inch slice peeled and bashed ginger, depending on how bitey you like your chai
5 black peppercorns, crushed
a few grates of nutmeg
muscovado (preferably) or brown sugar to taste
Add all ingredients to a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Watch carefully because it may overflow. Once liquid comes to a boil, lower heat to medium-low or until bubbles just barely break the surface of the liquid. Leave to simmer for 30 minutes (get yourself busy with something else, what's important is that you leave it alone). Strain liquid into a 12-oz mug. Sweeten to taste and enjoy.
PS: If you like the creaminess of the chai tea served at CBTL, consider adding 2 teaspoons of non-dairy creamer into your chai tea or vanilla powder. It's irreverent I know, but I like it.