I can’t remember when I had my first taste of chai tea. I do remember that my adoration of the beverage began during the leading cusp of its’ growth in popularity in North America. Unlike with most trends both culinary and otherwise, I hopped on this bandwagon pretty quickly. Perhaps I first became smitten with the syrupy, processed flavour of Starbucks’ version of chai, but my most memorable chai drinking experiences have been truly authentic.
When I finished my undergraduate degree, I packed my Chevy Tracker with all my worldly possessions and returned to my childhood home in Manitoba from the east coast. Halfway home, I met up with a good friend from high school, whose Indian heritage seemed to have taken on even deeper roots since she had moved to the big city for university. As we caught up on each others lives, she stirred four tea bags into a saucepan full of milk. Into the warming pot went sugar, cinnamon, cloves and cardamom. I jotted the recipe down in my leather bound journal and have made it many times since.
I had another opportunity to taste “the real deal” when it came to chai when I traveled to India the following year. New Delhi was hot and overwhelming. I met up with a friend from university in a guesthouse late one night after a flight in from Bangkok. She had brought Pirate cookies from home. The power was out, and we ate the peanut buttery sandwich cookies – the entire box, as I recall – by flashlight. We were terrified of the adventures to come, and comforted by the familiarity of a taste from home. The next day we shoved our way onto a third class car on a train bound for Agra. I looked out the steel bars of the train window, beckoned by the calling of a chai-walla.
“Chai walla, chai walla, chai walla, chaiiiii.”
Later we would learn to dodge out of the train as it pulled into the station, buy a chai and peel off the thick brown milk that had formed a layer on top of the drink and stuck to the sides of the cup. Quickly down the throat, then back on the train before it pulled out of the station. We had breakfast chais served with pakora and mint cilantro raita, chais after rich yogurt, butter and tomato-sauced dinners scooped with aromatic naan.
I could not get enough. Of India, of Indian food, and of chai. Though I long to return one day, perhaps with my little girl in tow, perhaps with the friend I made my first trip with, I can at least approximate real muggy train station chai-walla chai at home until I am finally able to buy that plane ticket.
Here’s what you need:
2 cups of milk
2 cups of water
Four tea bags (whatever black tea you prefer) or 6 tsp loose black tea
1/2 vanilla bean, scraped
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp powdered ginger
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp cardamom
Pinch of black pepper
Here’s what you do:
Add all of the ingredients except the tea into a pot and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Add the tea and steep for as long as desired (I like a good strong tea, so I usually steep for 5-7 minutes, with the pot on low heat).
Use a strainer (a loose leaf tea strainer works well) to strain the tea into a pot or individual cups. Sweeten with sugar, honey or agave nectar to taste.