The first time I had chai, I was in a small rented room in the Chungking Mansion in Hong Kong (notoriously cheap accommodations). Our little cel block area probably had 4 bedrooms, and one little old Chinese lady who sat in the entryway and managed them.
The morning after my arrival I was still reeling from the shock of my expectations when I booked the place ("Chungking Mansion, my that sounds quite nice") compared to the reality of the place, when the little old lady asked me, "Chai?", pointing to a pot on the stove.
"Sure," I replied, not knowing exactly what was coming, perhaps tea?
Boy was I surprised, and in the best possible way. Chai is tea, black tea, but tea steeped in milk, flavored with spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, and star anise, and sweetened with sugar or honey.
This wonderful chai was the best discovery in Hong Kong; I couldn't wait to spend another night in the Mansion, just to have some more chai in the morning. That was over 30 years ago and since then chai has become much more popular here.
The other day my friend Suzanne served up some delicious chai and told me more of her experiences with it while in the Peace Corp in Africa. According to Suzanne, families have chai recipes the way they have curry recipes, every one a little different and each particular to a family.
It can conveniently be made all in one pot, and you can use sweetened condensed milk from a can - important in the tropics. If you really want the authentic experience, drink it from a tin cup. Here is the way that Suzanne makes her chai:
- Spice ingredients for one pot of tea:
- 1/2 of a star anise star
- 10-12 whole cloves
- 6-7 whole allspice
- 1 heaping teaspoon of cinnamon bark (or 2 short sticks)
- 6-7 whole white peppercorns
- 1 cardamon pod opened to the seeds
- Other ingredients:
- 1 cup water
- 4 cups whole milk
- 2 heaping tablespoons of a high quality full-bodied broad-leaf black tea (Ceylon, or English Breakfast if a broad-leaf Ceylon is not available)
In a 2-qt saucepan, add spices to 1 cup of water. Bring to a boil; remove from heat; let steep for 5-20 minutes, depending on how strong a spice flavor you want.
Add 4-6 cups of whole milk to the water and spices. If you don't have whole milk, you can also use non-fat or low-fat milk, just add some cream to it, a few tablespoons. Bring the milk and spice mixture just to a boil and remove from heat.
Add the tea to the milk and let steep for 5 to 10 minutes to taste. (Option at this point - reheat to a simmer and remove from heat.) You can add sugar at this point, or serve without sugar and let people put the amount of sugar in they want. Traditionally, sugar is added before serving.
Strain into a pot. Serve. Add sugar to taste.