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.

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