Thursday, October 11, 2007

Chai Tea—Masala Chai, That Is

I tend to be something of an obsessive personality. I get fixated on a thing, and then I worry it like a dog worries a bone. I look at it from this angle and that. I gnaw. I ponder. Lately I've done this with Chai tea, which is inherently obsession-worthy: it's everywhere (Starbucks, restaurants) yet it's hard to find good, truly spicy Chai tea. Chai means 'tea' in many languages, but I'm after masala chai, which is what Westerners mean when they say Chai. Wikipedia has a decent entry on it. Go to a grocery store and you will find several different things claiming to be Chai: vanilla chai tea, even green chai (yuck), powder mix for Chai that includes the sweetener.

I do not drink caffeine, and so it became of the utmost importance in my life to find Chai decaf tea that didn't taste like cardboard water. Many of the teas purporting to be Chai (sold by Stash, Celestial Seasonings and the like) *smell* good and spicy but when you taste them they taste like nothing. Worse than nothing, because at least if you're drinking nothing, you expect nothing. When you expect spicy warmth and find nothing, it's disappointing. So I visited the India Bazaar, a great store on 1321 Central Ave., where I bought fresh ginger, cardamom still green in its pods, and peanuts coated with hot spices.

I had found this recipe, which claimed that you do not want to use leaf tea to make Chai-- and right they are. Every time I made Chai using leaf tea, it turned out wrong. The tea leaf turned the tea too bitter, and the spices couldn't compete. I wanted to buy authentically Indian tea-- not the expensive leaf kind of tea, but just the everyday kind, hoping to find decaf. But apparently, people from India do not believe in decaf.

These are the right brands, but they all have caffeine.
I can really understand their point about caffeine (alas, I love things that are bad for me), and maybe next time I will feel brave enough to buy one of these boxes of tea.

So I started experimenting with the Chai recipe. At first it was not good. So I added more spice and made it again. And then, when I finally got it how I like it, I decided that it's no use to make just one cup of Chai. You want to have lots of it around, so you can easily reheat some for a midnight snack or early in the morning.

So here's what I came up with.

Big pot O Decaf Chai

You will need a sturdy mortar and pestle for this, as well as a strainer with fine holes, around the size that can fit over your standard tea mug. I found an excellent cup-size strainer at the Hannaford.

6 cups water
8 tsp. Orange pekoe tea (or tea from 8 tea bags) but DO NOT use leaf tea! I have used Tetley and Salada.
20-30 pods cardamom. Cardamom can make it taste bitter, so maybe more like 20, depending on your taste.
1 hunk of ginger (1-2 inch chunk)
15 or so black peppercorns
4 medium sticks of cinnamon (more if the sticks are thin)
15 allspice berries
15 cloves
some honey
2 cups milk or half and half

Place the cardamom and ginger together in your mortar and pestle and pound away until you are satisfied, and until the cardamom seeds, which are black, emerge from the pods and are crushed. (This part is very therapeutic). Then do the same with the rest of the spices, making sure you break up the cinnamon well enough that there is some powder as well as little bits of cinnamon bark. The more you break things up, the more surface area there will be = the more spicy your tea will be. Put it all in the water with the tea, and then simmer it for about 10 minutes. This part is important: too little time, and your tea won't taste like much of anything, but too much time, and it will be bitter. Add 2 cups of milk or half and half if you're feeling decadent, and heat through. Then add about 2 Tbs. honey (or to taste) and strain.