Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Lie About Chai

A recycled picture from my trip to India.
If you've never heard of the popular website (which also maintains a blog and several video series), I'd highly recommend it. The people at Lifehacker offer the important service of finding ways to hack life. Literally. They give tips on everything from improving your garden to being more productive at work, and they're generally awesome. So I was greatly disappointed a few weeks ago when the people that brought us news of the Great Lunch Swap and tipped us off to YouSwear also posted a DIY "chai tea" recipe with a resolutely false claim of authenticity.

This is something I've complained about before to be sure, but I'm consistantly bewildered by American "chai tea." Contrary to popular belief, "chai" doesn't just mean that an assortment of spices is added to your tea. The word "chai" means tea--which the Lifehacker article thankfully recognizes. And the cardinal sin committed by brewers of the American drink is adding cinnamon, among other spices. There are several people who enjoy the presence of the spice in their tea--perfectly fine, of course--but the fact is: real chai does not have cinnamon. In fact, the spice that's used most commonly (and on its own) for masala chai (or "spiced tea") is cardamom. And if you've ever tasted the two drinks--close together--you'll notice immediately how cinnamon changes the flavor, overpowering the tea and reducing the simple complexity of the cardamom. 

Perhaps the distinction between "chai tea" and "chai" is necessary since the American drink tastes vastly different from the Indian one, but it doesn't appear to be enough to differentiate the two with regard to authenticity. The reason "chai tea" is used over "chai" is that a lot of people don't know what the word means in the first place. And then you have all of those people touting "authentic chai tea." Whatever that means. Elaborating on the name to make it more clear is, in this case, fusing the two drinks into some sort of consolidated catch-all spice drink that several people mistakenly believe to be the real thing. 

If you're eager for a more authentic recipe, here's a simple one from my mom that I sent Matt a few years ago, verbatim. It also requires fewer ingredients.

My mom's authentic chai.
(this makes enough for about 2 cups of tea--obviously)
1 cup milk
1 cup water
About 3 heaping teaspoons of tea leaves (picture attached). Since your chances of finding this exact brand are next to none, unless you're going to an Indian store/India anytime soon, I'd try some obscure tea shop. Or I can send you some if you're really keen on it.
About 2 tablespoons of sugar (or however much you like)
3-4 "pods" of cardamom, whichever kind you like/have (I'm sure ground cardamom would work just as well)

Pour milk and water into a small pot. Bring to a "almost a boil." Add tea leaves--you can even add more. I actually found it a bit weak with the above amount. Let steep for like five minutes but don't let it boil like crazy. Add sugar. Then, get out your mortar and pestle and ground the cardamom like the dickens. After it's reasonably crushed, add it to the pot. Or just add the ground stuff directly. Let it steep for a few more minutes on like, simmer or something. Strain tea into a cup, and drink up! Then repeat!

The tea I refer to is one my mother got in India, but if you're not planning on taking a trip over, use a solid black tea like English or Irish Breakfast. Avoid "flavored" black teas like Earl Grey. You can also find a Tata or Taj brand black tea at your local Indian store. If the tea comes in bags, use about 2-3 tea bags worth. If you have a very fine strainer, you can even cut open the bags and use the tea loose. If not, place the bag in the pot just like you would in a tea cup and take it out when you're done brewing. For a stronger cup, I'd use around 4-5 heaping teaspoons of loose tea, or 3-4 tea bags, since the above recipe (as noted) makes fairly weak tea.

Also, I can send you some if you're really keen on it.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Tea Infuser of the Week

This week's infuser: Yellow Submarine Tea Infuser
Right on par with the Tea-Rex for creativity, this silicone tea sub lets you infuse tea and proclaim your Beatles-fan-status all at the same time. It's got (port)holes on each side and the bottom for infusion, and a hook on the end of its chain for optimal "submergence." This infuser's recommended for large-leaved teas, though if you like a good amount of sediment, it'll work great.Now your tea can live in a yellow submarine too. 

(What people are saying)
Pros: Adorable. Fits on most mugs and cups. Doubles as a Christmas ornament?

Cons: When brewing with this sub, you'll need a bit of agitation for optimal infusion. Some of the holes are large enough to let smaller-leaved teas through. Given its shape, clean up can be a hassle.

Picture from here.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Tea Infuser of the Week (a little late...)

I'd like to blame the derecho in the mid-Atlantic last week for the lateness of this post, but alas, I cannot.

This week's tea infuser: the Tea Plant
Kitcshy indie clothing and apartment store Modcloth describes this Streamline infuser as fresh and creative! I have to agree. This guy solves that constant problem of "keeping" tea leaves. If you've ever had a loose tea that can be brewed multiple times, you've had to deal with the pain of storing those leaves in a way that isn't messy and doesn't take up too much space. It's just so… green.
(What people are saying)
Pros: Super easy to clean. Stain resistant! Less sediment in your brew due to the smaller infusion holes.

Cons: The infusion holes are actually pretty tiny and can get covered when tea leaves expand (as they do for most partially oxidized teas, like greens and oolongs). It's also reported to float, but that's neither here nor there.

A similar infuser is the Arta Tea Leaf Infuser. It holds much more tea (~3 tablespoons) but is a bit delicate.

Pictures from here and here.

Monday, June 25, 2012


A few weeks ago I was visiting my boyfriend Matt (who was most recently spotted here) in the San Francisco Bay area, and was treated to a tea tasting in the city! He'd had the pleasure of experiencing one before, but (gasp!) I hadn't, so it automatically made the list of Stuff To Do.

We do a living wealthily happily!
I'd actually never been to San Francisco's famed Chinatown, unless you count a bus ride through it, so it was lovely to walk through Grant Avenue and see the sights. Apparently it's the oldest American Chinatown and the largest community of Chinese people outside of China. We did all the touristy things like go to the gate on Grant at Bush street and hobnob in a few of the shops. Many of them had awesome paper star lights that I had seen everywhere when I visited Goa, so now I know where to get them! We also played the Engrish game--whoever could find the best Engrish phrase won. (The winner by a landslide was Matt, with the impressive line, "we do a living wealthily happily," on some "Enrich Life" brand of sushi rolling trays.)

Then came the big event--the tasting itself. We stopped in at a cozy location of "Vital Tea Leaf," whose misfortune at missing the "vitalitea" pun was amply made up for by the epic layout of the store. Each wall was covered in large jars filled with tea, and a barista of sorts, manned the place, hovering over a counter that held various tea cups with his own sizable mug in hand.

Jasmine Green Tea
I wanted to find a floral oolong like the excellent one I found in China, and since I'm a new fan of jasmine, my first request was for a jasmine oolong. According to our tea guy (and contrary to the tea lady I met in a Lotus grocery store in Beijing), these didn't exist! He started us off with a jasmine green tea instead. It was a standard jasmine, with a soft, slightly bitter finish. Good for a meditative afternoon or after coming home drenched in rain. I actually thought it was a bit on the strong side, surprising given our barista's chosen method of steeping. He'd rinse the leaves, dunk them in water for a solid twenty seconds with constant agitation, and pour--by far the shortest infusion time I've heard of and, according to him, due to the high quality of the leaves.

Lychee Green Tea
The next tea was my choice again--a lychee green that began a lychee flavor kick that I'm still on. This is a fantastic tea. Tea guy brewed it a little too strong again, but with every sip I got a mouthful of not-too-sweet-but-oh-so-succulent lychee. And it smelled heavenly… Drink this any time, all the time, but especially with a bagel covered in salmon-flavored cream cheese.

Ginger Red Tea
Matt's pick was a smooth, sharp ginger red tea, not too heavy on the ginger, but adequately pungent. Like anything with ginger in it, I recommend this brew for anyone feeling under the weather. I happened to be on the last turn of a cough and cold business, so it was perfect. I'm generally not too much of a red tea person, but that may be just a matter of perspective since the name comes from the color of the tea and not necessarily from the ingredients. If I'm comparing it to the only real and true red tea I've had (a mulchy rooibos) and not various light black teas, this one was solid.

Chinese Black Tea (Pu-erh)
Then came a Chinese black tea, an anonymous pu-erh with a glassy, cherry wood color and a traditional punch. I remember a certain chilled tea drink I adventurously grabbed from a fridge in the student market at Tsinghua University, and this stuff was a hot near-copy. A friend explained the sharp bite of something in the chilled version as an additive of Chinese medicine. Very strong, very different flavor profile to standardly treated Camellia sinensis, and... not quite my thing. It might make a good marinade for lamb though.

Energy Tea!
Lychee Black Tea
To recover our salts from a colorful tea journey, our gracious barista treated us to a mysterious "energy" tea while I debated over the lychee. After we all successfully energized (helped by a blending effect from the sediment of all the previous teas in the cup), he suggested a sweeter lychee black tea, which ended up smelling as delightful as the green but finishing a little less sweet. The extra oxidation of the leaves gave the tea a bit more body, but unfortunately at the expense of some of the lychee flavor. After another trial of the green I was convinced. He packed up a quarter pound of of the lychee green (at $15) for me and another quarter pound of ginger red for Matt while we finished our tea. Our instructions: thirty-second brews at around 180 degrees Celsius, and each set of leaves can be used up to four times. To amend that--I've noticed a slight lag of flavor on the third and fourth steep, so I recommend extra agitation or an increase in the infusion time with each use.

If you're planning on going on your own tea tasting  adventure, remember to:
Drink quickly! By the time I finished my little cup, Matt had knocked back two and the pot had been dumped out for the next tea… Try something new! If a place offers tasting, they're sure to offer funky flavors with bamboo or weird flowers you've never heard of. Avoid buying tea sets. Seriously. They're way cheaper in China.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Tea Infuser of the Week

This week's infuser: the IngenuiTEA teapot
On the order of something both neat and incredibly useful, I discovered THIS at Kelsey's place last year. Take note all you loose tea fiends. This thing combines the functions of a teapot and an infuser by carefully infusing the tea when you pour in hot water. Then, when you put it (the whole contraption) on your cup, a valve opens and it drains up to 16 ounces of tea (but not the leaves) into the cup. I almost didn't believe it when I heard Kelsey's instructions. Thermodynamics, I knew you were good for something.

(What people are saying)
Pros: Dishwasher-safe AND microwavable. Available in a larger size (32 oz) for a larger volume brew. Fairly easy to clean. Can make both tea and coffee. Just plain cool-looking.

Cons: A few have found it to leak if placed on uneven surfaces, and it won't eliminate every molecule of sediment, if that's the way you like your tea.

(The IngenuiTEA also made an appearance on Lifehacker's Stuff We Like!)

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Tea Infuser of the Week

One of my dad's deep passions is collecting (and occasionally using) kitchen gadgetry--it's the engineer in him. Somehow I'm disenchanted by the idea of using lots of non-vital things to cook that you then have to clean. I've often laughed over this passion with my family, but recently I get the feeling that my own gadgetry gene is expressing itself. And the phenotype is obviously tea related. This post is the first in a new series featured on Dynastea--tea infuser of the week!

This week's infuser: the Tea Rex
The Tea Rex gets bonus points for being simultaneously punny and dinosaur-related. (In most cases, there are too many syllables for this to be pulled off correctly.) This little guy is good for fairly large-leaved loose tea for a single, regular-sized cup brew at a time.

(What people are saying)
Pros: Looks awesome. Does the job well. Available in a larger size for bigger brews.
Cons: The infusion holes are pretty big, so they sometimes allow smaller leaf teas through. The kooky shape makes it a bit tricky to get leaves in, and considerably tough to get them all out.

Picture from here.

Monday, April 9, 2012

A Little Southern Charm

I first experienced Revolution tea a few years ago and was very impressed; they make the best English Breakfast and Earl Grey (Lavender) I've had, and I feel as though the brand is obscure/high-end enough to satisfy many a tea snob. But I hadn't explored their other teas at all until January (yes, it's been ages...) when I visited my boyfriend and his family in Atlanta. The folks at Revolution make an excellent Sweet Ginger Peach (remember Peach Week 2011?), and when my boyfriend's parents were sweet enough to send me a bunch of boxes, I was further delighted to discover their cute sampler packs. Unlike the Republic of Tea's Ginger Peach, this one's title advertises it perfectly. It has a ginger flavor that holds its own, but the peach (obviously!) remains the star of the show. Think earthy ginger plus farmer's market-fresh peaches. A great balance of both eponymous flavors and enough body that you never forget it's a black tea--it's no wonder Revolution names this the most popular flavor. 

A sample Sampler Pack
It's the hardcore tea enthusiast (or diabetic) who refuses to put sugar in any tea because it could detract from the flavor. I normally don't adhere to that rule, and often I'll try a tea both sweetened and unsweetened because the taste evolves for each presentation. This morning I did one further--Sweet Ginger Peach with off-brand artificial sweetener (Splenda's half-brother you might say). I haven't tried it iced yet, but it's a peach tea, and you can hardly go wrong icing those. Also, for those frowning at the idea of tainting their tea with sugar-lookalikes, it's totally fine without.

What to pair with this? If served hot, go for eggs over-easy with sizzling bacon and butter-slathered toast. Or a similar triple-bypass breakfast. If served iced, sip slowly while sitting on your porch doing your mending and waiting for Ashley Wilkes to come home.

Picture from here. Get Revolution's Sweet Ginger Peach here or here. Oh, and that awesome sampler pack here.