Why chai? Why have national coffeehouse chains recently adopted this tea-based beverage? Why has Celestial Seasonings, the company that brought herb teas to mainstream grocery stores, acquired a chai company? What makes a beverage, long established as a cheap street food in its native land, suddenly achieve chic status on a continent far, far away?
Could it be the growing interest in Indian or Nepalese cuisine? Movie stars turned Tibetan advocates? Or the realization that, when it’s spiked with spices and frothed with steamed milk, people will actually pay close to $3 for what is, when you get right down to it, a cup of tea?
It could be any of these factors. As I started researching chai’s migration, I fortunately found myself drinking a lot of it, prepared by a variety of tea chefs. After much testing, I came to a conclusion: chai’s popularity has everything to do with taste. Made well, it’s delicious. It’s also fascinating because, like the culture of its home region, it has so many faces.
Chai originated in India, Nepal, and Tibet, where it is served by street vendors in cities and even small, remote villages. In northeastern India, where chai is drunk from newly made unglazed clay cups, the custom is to smash your cup after slurping the last drop, perhaps to signify enjoyment, akin to the practice of throwing wineglasses into the fireplace. Chai wallahs (vendors) also sell their wares aboard trains stopped at stations. Customers simply toss the earthenware cups out the windows when they’re finished. Some people swear that the taste of the clay cups actually enhances the taste of the tea.
In the West as in India, chai remains as individual as those who make it. No two Indian restaurants, if they make it themselves, serve the same kind of chai—and may it remain ever so!
Commercial chai products sold in the United States also show endless variety. Chai is sold in dry mixes or already prepared in aseptic boxes, both forms in a wide array of flavors and combinations. Some chai producers are mom-and-pop (or in the case of Portland-based Oregon Chai, mom-and-daughter) businesses; others are large corporations. The labels often contain puns, witticisms, or tales of chai drunk in its home countries. Masala Chai, made for fifteen years in Santa Cruz, California, covers its packaging with histories of its spice ingredients.
The chai idea is taking off in the United States. Expect new flavors and products this fall from Mountain Chai, the brand that Celestial Seasonings of Boulder, Colorado, acquired in January. Masala Chai recently brought out a blend containing St.-John’s-wort and ginkgo.
In fact, chai has only three constants: strong black tea, milk of some kind, and spices, with cardamom and ginger the most common. Even these are not mandatory; some formulators and manufacturers are introducing noncaffeinated versions (one such recipe is given below).
Some chais contain as many as a dozen different spices, including cloves, cinnamon, anise or fennel seeds, black or white or pink peppercorns, allspice, nutmeg, star anise, and others that seem to have only Indian names. Other chais are elegantly simple. The milk component may be fat-free, 2 percent, half-and-half, goat’s milk, or, as Oregon Chai puts it on its box, “soy stuff”.
Debate joyfully rages about how sweet chai should be, and whether vanilla should be added to the milk. Should the tea itself be boiled, or is that a heresy? One aficionado asserts that the milk should be boiled not once, but twice. Chai connoisseurs compare and critique the versions of chai gurgling forth from various coffeehouses, and they can get downright steamed up over the merits of steamed milk.
This cacophony of opinions achieves unison on one point, however: the best chai is the one you make at home. Producing chai can be a labor of love, involving a half hour of crushing whole spices, or as simple as adding ginger, cardamom, milk, and sugar to your customary cuppa.
The above recipes come from contributors to The Herb Tea Book, published by Interweave Press. For maximum flavor, start with whole, not powdered, spices. You may grind them coarsely with a mortar and pestle or in a blender or spice mill if the recipe calls for it.
When she isn’t tracking down food trends and scoping out gourmet groceries, Susan Clotfelter edits herb books for Interweave Press in Loveland, Colorado.