Saturday, December 28, 2013

Chai Life -- India Photo of the Day

One of the many delights in India is the wonderful tea.  Most often it was presented as a tea bag, often with powdered milk to stir into it.  (And it was still mighty tasty.) But when it was done right as chai masala as shown above as prepared by a sidewalk vendor in Jaipur, it was a mighty special drink.

Chai means tea, masala means spiced.  It is made with boiled or heated milk.

I really was surprised to have so much tea made from tea bags and to see so little in the way of tea shops, teapots and loose leaf tea, especially since India is second only to China in tea production and consumption.  To be fair, I wasn't really in any tea-growing regions and didn't seek out any fancy hotel teas or tea shops.

India's home grown coffees are tasty, but I opted for chai masala whenever I could. I had it at hotel breakfasts, roadside rest stops and once out of a small earthenware cup at a re-creation of a Rajasthani folk village.  Typical Indian servings are on the petite size.  I always wanted to supersize my cup.

To make chai masala you need a spice mix. You can buy it premade or make your own. (Careful, don't buy a chai latte mix - which will have instant tea and perhaps powdered milk - you just want the spices.  Chai latte is an American concept, a larger, milkier riff on classic Indian chai.)

I don't really have a recipe - I just use a mixture of what I have a taste for -- usually cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and cloves.  Sometimes I even add a bit of black pepper. Some folks also use star anise. I usually use ground spices, but you can use whole, cracked spices if you prefer.  I have made great tasting chai with dairy and non-dairy milks, but in India I only had it with whole, regular milk.

To make a few servings (depends on size of your cup) -- place your spices (perhaps a teaspoon total of the ground spices) in 2 cups water. Bring to a boil. Take off heat, add 2 Tbs. of black, loose tea.  Let steep for 5-7 minutes, until very strong.  Strain.  Return liquid to pot.  Add 2 cups of milk of your choice and sugar to taste (optional) and reheat, stirring occasional, until hot.  (Bringing the milk to a boil is more traditional in India where boiling the milk for 2-3 minutes is seen as a health precaution in some areas. It also brings out the milk sugars and helps give it a more caramelized taste.)

Everything is up for negotiation -- use a few tea bags if you prefer instead of the loose tea.  Add more or less spice or more or less milk or water.  Usually, I use Assam or  Darjeeling tea, but orange pekoe is often used and any black tea will work.  You can even use a decaffeinated tea. I've made good herbal versions with South African rooibos (red) tea.

If you have access to an Indian market, my preferred "quick" chai is Tea India's brand of flavored tea bags.  I have tried masala and cardamom flavors. Both are great and stand up to added milk.

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