Chai and how to make it.

Chai spices. Photo: FreeDigitalPhotos.com

While China is known as the “birthplace of tea,” other nations are major producers and consumers of the beverage. India has been a major tea growing region since the mid-19th century, when the country became part of the British Empire, and indigenous tea plants were cultivated to provide tea for English consumption. Tea drinking within India became widespread during the early 20th century when the sale and consumption of Indian tea inside India and in the rest of the world was specifically promoted.

Other Asian tea customs combined to influence the creation of chai. Tea was spread throughout Asia by the Mongols, unified under Genghis Khan in the 13th century. By the 19th century, it became widely popular in Tibet, Russia, and the Middle East. The Tibetans preferred Chinese black tea and purchased huge quantities of it, pressed into bricks for transport across long distances via yak caravan; they also preferred their tea with milk or yak butter, with or without salt. This almost certainly influenced the British and Indian preference for milk in their tea, and Indian tea is processed and blended specifically to taste best with milk. The habit of drinking tea with sugar came from the customs of Russia and the Middle East, brought to India through trade.

In India, the British method of preparing tea was altered to suit local tastes. Instead of what has become the standard way of making a pot of tea, the tea leaves are added to a metal pot or kettle containing boiling milk and water. The tea is boiled with the milk and water, and sweetened to taste. This is called chai, which is basically the Hindi word for tea. Masala chai is prepared when spices such as cardamom, ginger, and cloves are added to the mixture. The combination and amount of spices, and the kind of sweetener (honey or sugar) is up to the taste of the person preparing the chai; it is sometimes said that “there are as many recipes for chai as there are households in India.” In the United States, and in parts of India, the terms chai and masala chai are used interchangeably, to describe a milky or creamy, sweet, spicy tea.

Although I like to use an instant, “just add hot water” chai mix that I buy in the grocery store, I have made chai at home with a few different methods. I always have dried ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and black pepper in my cabinet, and they worked perfectly fine. I was also able to find some Indian black tea (Brooke Bond Red Label) at the local Asian grocery store, along with a “Masala chai” spice blend in a jar. You can also buy a variety of chai blends, tea with an assortment of spices already added, from many tea vendors. Why not try making some chai soon? Here’s how I make chai at home:

1 cup water
1 cup milk
2 teaspoons loose black tea (preferrably Assam or other Indian tea)
¼ teaspoon masala chai spice blend
2 teaspoons white sugar

Place the milk and water in a non-stick saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Prepare a Pyrex or other heat-proof container by placing a wire strainer lined with cheesecloth over it. When the milk and water is boiling, add the loose tea and spices, and stir. Turn the heat down and simmer for 5 minutes, then add the sugar, and stir. Taste (carefully!) to see if it’s sweet enough, and when it’s done, turn off the heat, and pour the chai through the strainer into the container. Pour into cups or mugs and serve. Makes 2 cups.

Copyright 2011, Elizabeth Urbach.

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