A pot of "chai" in India isn't simply a pot of tea, it is something far more exotic and ritualistic than that, and if you have ever visited the subcontinent you will be aware of the ubiquitous nature of the drink. It makes sense, drinking warm fluids helps trigger the bodies natural cooling abilities and thus helps you cool down in blisteringly hot conditions.
My first experience of chai actually occurred in a restaurant in Little India, Singapore way back on Christmas day 2001. I was pleasing myself for Christmas lunch and tucking into a rather spicy banana leaf curry in a very locals restaurant when suddenly my mouth caught fire, much to the delight of my hosts it has to be said. The waiters, chef, kitchen staff and restaurant owner all found this hilarious and once the laughter had passed almost in unison they all began saying "chai?" to me and making that funny drinking gesture with the pinky sticking out.
So it was here in Singapore over a scorching curry that I was presented with a cup of chai to soothe the fire in my mouth. It was sublime, maybe a little on the sweet side for my personal taste but it was delicious, I was hooked.
Of course chai has become quite common place in the UK over the last few years and you can buy it in various forms in most supermarkets these days; with tea included, with powdered milk included, with various spices included. I didn't have that luxury when I returned from travelling in the early part of this century and alas had to recreate it from a badly written, dog eared journal entry that had the contributions of the aforementioned restaurant staff included.
I've tinkered with the recipe over the years, experimenting with different milk (such as almond and coconut), omitting the lemongrass altogether and using various tea varieties, but the one thing that has remained more or less unchanged is the masala. It's true that in many Indian households the masala would differ according to taste, much like every household having a unique garam masala for cooking, however there is a widely accepted commonality to the basic recipe that I have included below. You should however feel free to add or subtract spices as per your own tastes. A dear friend puts toasted and ground cumin in their chai for example, which to me is not so nice as it makes the chai taste a little too much like a curry, but to each their own.
Chai - Ingredients
1 stalk of lemongrass, tough outer leaves removed, cut into 3 pieces
2 teaspoons of loose black tea, Assam is best
1 tsp chai masala - if you don't have Parva Spices chai masala blend use recipe below
Sugar to taste
Put the lemongrass and water in a saucepan and bring to the boil, allow to simmer for 2 minutes. Add the milk, tea, sugar and chai masala and bring back to the boil. Strain into a warm tea pot and serve immediately.
For a stronger chai add an extra teaspoon of tea leaves as well as a touch more masala
Chai Masala Recipe - makes about 110g
30g ground ginger
30g ground green cardamom seeds
7.5g ground cloves
7.5g ground nutmeg
7.5g ground black peppercorns
Make sure you have ground all of the whole spices as finely as you can (cloves, peppercorns, cardamom seeds). If using a pestle and mortar to grind them you will want to sieve the powder into a bowl to remove large pieces of debris. If you are using a spice grinder the result should already be a fine powder. Mix all of these ingredients together well and store in an airtight container in a cool, dark place. They will keep for 6 months.
As mentioned earlier in the article you can experiment with your favourite flavours. Try adding any of the following to this blend: caraway seeds, mint leaves, mace, saffron, orange zest, carom seeds, star anise, a pinch of chilli powder.