Chai is India's national drink. Although in many languages “chai” refers to pure “tea”, in India it refers to the aromatic and tantalizing concoction of warming spices and black tea. Sweetened with sugar and lightened with milk or cream, this special drink is continuously being poured along roadsides throughout the country.
Although India has only produced tea on a massive scale since the 1840’s (when the British introduced native Chinese plants to Indian soils) the hot beverage was quickly embraced. No one knows who was the first to combine black tea with certain spices combination – however the experiment was a success. Now days all over India and all over the world, you can find reiterations, imitations and variations of the 5-spice combination.
Although India produces a wide range of teas ranging from high end, perfumed and fragrant Darjeeling teas to fruity and bright Nilgiri teas, most of the tea used in chai come from the malty and thick varieties made in Assam. These robust teas can hold their weight against the powerful blend of spices, sugar and milk that make the typical cup of Indian chai complete.
While chai in India can be made at home, it is common to see it sold on the streets. Chai-Wallahs – those who serve and sell chai – preside over their boiling cauldrons throughout the day. Each chai wallah tends his mix of the 5 traditional spices added to the black tea: cardamom, ginger, cloves, black pepper and cinnamon, along with sugar and milk. These spices are added whole, along with finely grated ginger and boiled with the loose black tea.
When a cup of tea is ready to serve, the chai wallah will strain out the loose spices and tea, and then, with pot in hand, raise his arm above his head, and pour the brew from a great height into small porcelain tea cups. Part showmanship and partly a technique for cooling the hot beverage down, weary travelers drink the tea while hovering around the chai stand.. It is always a social gathering where folks can catch-up with friends, the news, or just enjoying a break from the road.
At one point customers would drink chai out of small terra-cotta cups made by local potters. These vessels would be used be used to deliver a single drink and then thrown and smashed on the ground. Although porcelain cups are used more commonly, you can still find terra-cotta cups being used every once and a while.
Teas used in making chai are often processed in a way known by the tea industry as CTC (Cut Tear Curl). This method of breaking the leaf into smaller pieces was developed specifically for tea bags. When steeped, the coarse tea material releases all its flavor in one single infusion. Because the tea us meant to be steeped only once - this eliminates the risk of over-steeping the tea and the cup becoming bitter. This works well for making chai as the tea leaf is often boiled with the spice to make the tea all the more aromatic.
As a loose tea lover – I make chai using Kumaon Black or Assam. The natural sweetness of Kumaon Black (lower right) compliments the spice combo, and Assam (lower left) is the classic tea used for chai. I brew the spiced water separately from the tea on the stove, and when it is hot and flavorful I ladle it into my tea pot over the loose leaves.
We encourage you to try your own chai recipes. I always break the cardamom pods slightly so the seeds, which hold the flavor, are exposed directly to the water. For a gallon of water I might start with: 20 cardamom, 7 cloves, 10 -15 black pepper, 2 – 3 cinnamon sticks, 2”x1” piece of ginger. I tend to like my chai strong, but you can always make a strong brew and dilute to taste with hot water in your cup.
I keep the brew of spices on the stove for about a week, bringing it to a boil every time I want a cup. The water gets weaker towards the end of the week. Once the flavor is gone, I transfer the spices to the compost, and begin the brewing cycle again…
Enjoy your cup of chai!