What we know as “chai” is a very particular type of spiced tea. You probably know the kind. Starbucks and Second Cup both have chai tea and chai latte options on their menu, and so on. They’re not bad, but I’ve found the spice blend to be too sharp – too synthetic and 2-dimensional. The reason for this is because potent spices lose a lot of texture and flavour after being ground; keeping spices in their whole (not powdered) form maintains the flavour longer. Some spices, such as nutmeg, lose so much flavour after being ground as to be nearly tasteless and scentless within weeks. To finish my point, “chai” is Hindi for “tea”. That’s all. What we’re really talking about is “masala chai”. Spiced tea. Now, let’s get back to whole spices.
The trick to full-bodied chai then, is the keep the spices whole until just before you use them. Again, I’m getting ahead of myself though. Before you start talking about using whole spices, and grinding them fresh – you’ll need to get a way to grind whole spices. Your traditional method is a mortar and pestle. A coffee bean grinder will do the trick. So will a specialized electric spice grinder. Are you really going to get a special machine to make chai though? Yeah, right. I didn’t think so. A cheap mortar and pestle will cost you 10 bucks, and because chai spices do not need to be ground into a powder (merely cracked open) a cheap one will do the trick for this. Here’s a video with a dude using a mortar and pestle, if you’ve never seen one in action before. If you absolutely can’t find a way to crush whole spices you could always go outside, find one strong baseball-sized round rock ( no limestone or anything that will crumble under pressure) and one heavy, smooth, slightly-concave rock the size of your open hand, wash and dry them, and crush the spices between them. Watch your hands.
Let’s get the recipe, shall we?
- 1 tbsp green cardamom pods
- 1 tbsp dried ginger
- 1 tbsp cassia bark (broken into small chips)
- 1 1/2 tsp whole cloves
- 1 tsp whole black peppercorns
What you will need: mortar and pestle, empty jar with airtight lid to store the spices
- Measure out all the dry whole spices into a small bowl.
- One spoonful at a time, pour the whole spices into a mortar and pestle and crush them to a coarse mix. This shouldn’t take more than two or three good grinds.
- Pour the crushed spices into the jar. Once all the spices and crushed, put the lid on the jar and shake it up to mix them all evenly.
Piece of cake, right? Now you’ve got chai spices freshly ground and ready to use. Wait, what’s that? You wanted to actually make some goddamned tea with these things?
Right. I should’ve thought of that. Here’s what you need.
Masala Chai (makes 2 cups)
- 1 2/3 cups boiling water
- 1/2 cream (half and half, if you like)
- 1 heaping tsp or 1 bag of black leaf tea
- 1 heaping tsp chai spice
- sugar or honey (as much as you like in your tea)
What you will need: small stove pot, ladle, teaspoon, tea cups, measuring cups, a tea ball
- Pour the water into the pot, and turn the heat to high (7-8 on my dial) and get the water boiling.
- Once the water is boiling, turn the heat down to the lowest setting on your stove to keep the water hot but not crazy-hot.
- Using the teaspoon, spoon a generous spoonful of the freshly-ground chai spice mix into the tea ball and drop it into the water.
- Wait about 5 minutes. You’re waiting because whole spices need time to soak in the hot water to release their oils – which is where flavour lives. As an aside (you have a few minutes to read now) this is why powdered spices lose their flavours faster. The powders dry out and therefore don’t retain their oils the same way whole spices do.
- Add loose leaf tea with a full heaping teaspoons-worth or add the tea bag now.
- Turn the heat off and remove the pot from the burner. Wait 3-4 minutes for the tea to steep. It’s doing the same thing the spices did – absorbing the water and then releasing the delicious flavours within.
- Add the cream to the pot and stir.
- You can add your sugar or honey to this pot, or you can sweeten your own cup to your liking later. Anyway, I’ll leave this part up to you. Grab the ladle and ladle tea into tea cups. Try to avoid ladling the tea ball or the tea bag into someone else’s cup. They don’t want to drink that.
Now, hypothetically, let’s say you didn’t want to buy whole spices, or crush them, or try to construct a homemade mortar and pestle out of beach rocks from Lake Ontario. First of all, you’re a spoil-sport. Second of all, your tea won’t be as good as this. However, you could, and can, buy these spices in a powder form. Ground cloves, pepper, ginger, and cinnamon (in place of the cassia bark) are all readily available in most spice aisles. Ground green cardamom might be a bit trickier. But, as luck would have it, green cardamom pods are pretty fragile, and they can be broken with your fingernails, or snapped open with your fingers. All you want to do with them, is break the pods open and get the tiny black seeds inside to fall out (you don’t need to crush those any further but you do want them in your tea mix). Then toss that into the powdered spices and continue on with your tea making. Keep in mind that powdered spices cannot be strained out of liquids as easily as large pieces can, so you may want to use less to make your tea, to avoid the spice becoming too strong for it’s own good.