Sunday, February 27, 2011

Why I cry for chai

I've never really been a coffee drinker.  Sure, it smells great.  I keep it on hand for guests and for my husband, who drinks coffee 24/7.  He can go to sleep immediately after having a cup of coffee.  In fact, he can sleep just about anywhere, anytime, any way.  I envy that... 

I might have a cup of coffee now and then, but it has to be decaf (Vindaloo on caffeinated coffee = Vindaloo on crack) and it has to be French Market coffee or something similar because I really like that chicory taste.  And of course the steamed milk.  Or half and half.  Or whipped cream with Demerara sugar.  Or vanilla ice cream.  Or... 

What I really crave and what is typically my companion in the early morning hours (when I am at my most charming and witty--4:30 a.m.) is chai.  I adore chai.  I love it.  I need it.  I must have it every morning.  And when I travel, it travels with me.   My first experiences with chai was in the homes of Indian families that befriended me.  Whether early morning or late in the afternoon, chai was strong, sweet, hot, and pungent.  I observed my Indian friends carefully and watched them make chai, all of them using basically the same proceedure.

The first rule?  Always use good-quality tea, whether loose (preferred) or in a bag.  Lipton Yellow Label (for rich tea taste and tannins) and Taj Mahal (for the flavor of roses) were highly recommended.  These loose teas can be found in most Indian grocery stores and at some Fiesta Markets.  Of course, you can make chai with grocery store tea bags, and I watched many Indian families use Lipton brand.  But authentic chai really tastes best with high quality tea.

The second rule for a good cup of chai: never put cold milk or cream into hot chai.  It will ruin the taste (and it really does).  Always heat the milk as you're boiling the tea, then add the hot milk.  There are really no other rules, but in the years that I've been making chai for myself, I've developed a few habits that seem to yield the best results.  I prefer unsweetened, organic soymilk to dairy products.  That's partly due to lactose intolerance, but also because soymilk lends a nutty, rich quality to the chai I make that is very delicious.

Also, since most chai is served with some kind of sweetener (and Indians mostly use cane sugar), and since I prefer it sweetened myself, I use Stevia.  This non-caloric natural sweetener is several times sweeter than sugar, so a little goes a long way.  It is also NOT a neurotoxin, like those little pink, yellow, and blue packets a lot of us use.  There are, however, some complaints about Stevia, so do your own research and decide what is right for you regarding sweetners.

I want to share three chai recipes with you (find them below).  The first two are made in the Kashmiri tradition and the last is more what most people are used to if they buy a cup of chai at a coffeehouse.  I make all of them interchangeably, depending upon my whim.   I make a large batch of chai without milk/cream/soymilk) and keep it in the refrigerator until I'm ready to heat and drink it.  When both the tea and the milk are cold, they can be heated together in the same cup either on the stovetop or in the microwave with very little compromise in taste.  I hope you enjoy these recipes as much as I do.

Shirchai  (Kashmiri salt tea)

9 cups water, divided
salt to taste
2 Tbs. semi-fermented tea leaves (such as oolong)*
15-20 seeds of green cardamom (sometimes I split 3 green cardamom pods and put      everything in; you can get these at an Indian grocery store, Fiesta Market, or at Penzey's)
1/2 tsp. ground cardamom
2 cinnamon sticks (I prefer the Ceylon softstick cinnamon from Penzey's)
1 generous slice fresh ginger (don't bother to peel)
5 peppercorns (I prefer the India Special Extra Bold from Penzey's)
1 tsp. white poppy seeds (optional, from Fiesta Market or an Indian grocery store)
1 pint whole milk, half and half or soymilk
6 Tbs. heavy cream (optional)
2 Tbs. ground pistachios (optional)

To make enough for 6 people:**

1.  Pour 6 cups water into a heavy pan.  Add the tea leaves, salt, cardamom seeds or split pods, and ground cardamom and bring to a boil.
2.  Reduce heat and simmer gently for about 30 minutes, or until the volume is reduced by about 2/3; i.e., you should have about 2 cups liquid.
3.  Add cinnamon sticks, ginger, peppercorns and poppyseeds. 
4.  Add 3 cups water, returning to a boil.  Boil for about 5 minutes.  Remove from heat and strain as many loose ingredients as you can with a shallow mesh strainer or a spider.
5.  Heat mik/half and half/soymilk gently over low heat until steaming.
6.  Add strained tea to hot milk and combine well.
7.  Pour into 6 cups.  Float a little heavy cream and ground pistachios on top, if you wish.

*There are many brands of loose oolong tea in a well-stocked Asian market (such as MT Supermarket in Austin, TX).  I use Koa Shan (because of the beautiful packaging) but have also tried Joy Luck.  Both are very good.

**You can make the tea, strain it, and not add the milk, then cool and chill it in the fridge.  Then you can reheat with cold milk one cup at a time.

Kahvi (Kashmiri Green Tea Chai)

6 cups water
2 cinnamon sticks
5 green cardamom pods, crushed
pinch saffron (about 6 strands)
2 Tbs. loose green tea or 6 green teabags
1 to 2 Tbs. ground almonds (optional)

To make enough for 4 people:

1.  Boil the water with the cinnamon sticks and cardamom pods until the water is brown and the steam smells like cinnamon, about 10 minutes.
2.  Remove from heat and add loose tea or teabags.  Add saffron.
3.  Cover pot and steep for 3 to 5 minutes.
4.  Pour into 4 cups and sweeten to taste if you wish.
5.  Sprinkle with ground almonds before serving (optional). 
6.  You can warm milk/half and half/or soymilk separately and combine with the tea, but this is not traditional.

Coffeehouse Chai

Combine the following ingredients in a large pot:

1 cinnamon stick
1/2 tsp. black peppercorns
2 bay leaves (substitute dried basil for an interesting change)
2 generous slices of fresh gingerroot (no need to peel)
15 cloves
8 green pods of green cardamom, crushed
1 Tbs. fennel seed or anise seed
1 inch piece vanilla bean (optional)
1 2-inch piece orange peel (optional)
8 cups water

Bring to a boil and boil for 5 minutes.  Remove from heat and cover.  Steep for 15 minutes.


2 Tbs. loose Darjeeling or black tea

Bring to a boil again and simmer for 5 minutes.  Strain.  You can cool and chill the tea to be reheated later one cup at a time (adding cold milk and sweetener if you wish).

Or you can heat 2 cups milk/half and half/soymilk and add to tea.  Sweeten to taste if desired.
Makes about 8 cups chai.

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