a beginner's guide to chai
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A Darjeeling Devotee Makes His Acquaintance with Chai

This is a sort of confession, sort of conversion and definite personal surprise. It’s not “about” chais but offers suggestions on how to discover them for yourself. Chai is a style of tea, rather than a precise specification or standardized set of ingredients.

That’s why I am writing this with the egocentric “I” instead of the neutral third person. Chai is very much a personal turn-on or turn-off, mainly dependent on your fondness for lots of milk and lots more of sugar versus liking bold, spicy and full plain tea. So, my use of “I” is to stress that there is no best chai and it’s for “you” to choose. This blog is intended to help you navigate.

My confession is that as a devotee of traditional teas and coffee-indifferent, chai long fell into my category of Not For Me and chai latte into the Never in This Lifetime one. Darjeelings, sencha, Mao Feng, Nilgiri, Keemun, just about any and every white tea, kukicha, puehr, jasmine pearls, high mountain, Alishan, Uji… Paradise found. But not that milky, spiced tea overloaded with sweetener.

The conversion came once I started to get a sense of what “chai” really covers (and also began to use really fresh Indian spices in my limited cooking). I recognized that choosing chais rests on distinguishing between “X chai” and “Chai X.” There is a wide gulf between chai tea, chai latte, family masala chai, and specialty masala chai.

It is easy to get a wrong or incomplete impression of your options if you try one and assume it is representative of chais in general. Here’s a perhaps stereotypical summary of the four distinctions.

Chai

Photograph by Mallikarjun Katakol, for Teabox

Chai tea

Chai simply means tea. The label is a redundancy – tea tea – but it does provide a signpost as to the market the provider is targeting. Plain chais or chais teas are almost all the spice equivalent of the Western flavored tea blends that add citrus, floral, herbal and fruit to a base of basic black tea. As with the prototypical instance of Earl Grey, chai tea focuses on the flavor boost rather than the tea. The main difference is the chai recipes are very much designed for milk and sugar.

You may add these to an Earl Grey tea or do without them, but they constitute the main elements of a standard chai. What I term “family masala” chai recipes largely begin by boiling milk, sweetener, spices and water and then adding the tea. Tea, milk and sweetener literally come as a package.

There are semi-infinite varieties in the sequencing and timing of chai making; many published recipes and even marketed products are based on a grandmother’s special version passed down through the family. The chaiwallahs who sell chai everywhere on the streets of India, in small, disposable clay cups, all have their own idiosyncratic varieties. What they have in common is that they are a milk tea and very sweet.

Specialty chais, the ones that are most likely to appeal to tea appassionatos – me, for instance – are often as appealing to the non-milk, non-sugar aficionado – me – especially the Darjeeling and Keemun nutjobs – me. (Sorry, ran out of Italian superlatives.)

The problem here is that if your only encounters with chai were chai latte, you are very likely not to discover masala chai – me, again. With home brewed masala chai offered by an Indian friend, if he or she is a traditionalist then you will associate chai more with sweet and creamy than with a different style of whole leaf tea.

Chai lattes

Essentially, chai lattes are a tea espresso targeted at offering coffee lovers a lower caffeine dessert treat and tea drinkers a decidedly non-bland palate-teaser. Many people love them and they are a skillful combination of marketing and flavor attack. Chai suggests something exotic and latte signals creamy and sweet.

Packaged chai lattes hold a special place all of their own for me: my kitchen trash can. They travel from hand to bin in approximately 16 milliseconds. The Go Throw alert is the ingredient list: “Sugar 45 grams” per cup. That is 10 teaspoons. Most chai lattes are not tea, not chai, not healthy, not fresh, and not the high grade “natural” product they are marketed as.

Chai latte appears to have become a label for “whatever.” Many served in coffee outlets are pre-brewed concentrates that are heavily pre-sweetened and like instant tea in contrast to even tea bags, let alone whole leaf tea.

Here is the typical ingredient list, from a leading firm that specializes in concentrates to be used in a brewing machine: sugar, dried whole milk, instant black tea, maltodextrin, salt and stevia sweetener.

In the middle of that list is also the dread item “natural flavor.” It means found somewhere in nature; sand is a legal natural additive. Some processed cheese contains “added natural fiber”, which sounds OK-ish, in the form of powdered wood pulp – which doesn’t quite have the same resonance; but it is “natural.” If you see “natural” pop up in a tea ingredient list, think wood shavings.

Ironically, many of the worst offenders in this packaged chemistry chai latte market are coffee, grocery and tea brands respected for quality, organic produce, Fair Trade sourcing, and other virtues of the premium trade. This piece of poetry is from… well, let’s leave it anonymous; the comments in parentheses highlight the differences between this chai X and X chai: chai latte in contrast to masala chai, the Indian classic style.

“Ingredients: sugar [processed white, doesn’t add to the spice flavor dance but speeds the path to diabetes]; nonfat milk [the worst for bringing out the flavor of spices but at least it’s not the frequent non-dairy creamer]; black tea [powdered generic]; spice blend: nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, ginger, clove, cardamom, [“blend” means ground up and mushed together – so much for the wonderful oils and aromatics of cracked cardamom pods]; natural flavor: organic maltodextrin corn, silicon dioxide [silicon is indeed natural but this compound is just an anti-caking agent]; honey: sucrose, honey [honey-ish with extra sugar added]; sodium caseinate [used in paint, glue, protein supplements and plastics]; salt; guar gum; vegetable mono and diglycerides; carrageenan gum.”

Contrast this with the Teabox Maharaja Rana masala chai: second flush (summer harvest that produces the most aromatic leaf) Darjeeling oolong, cloves, green cardamom and cinnamon. These are whole spices, non-irradiated (the zapping process to preserve, store and often reduce the spiciness of spices), non-powdered, and fresh, and not the typical six months old or longer. This is a stunningly good tea, a pleasure in every element. The ingredients each provide a distinctive and fresh zest. Natural here means naturally natural.

This example moves the exploration and discovery of chais to masala chai. This term covers an amazingly wide range of specific recipes that vary in terms of exact ingredients for the four elements of a chai: the milk, spices, tea and sweetener. Some of these won’t appeal to you and some will have your Indian friends’ eyes lighting up the way an American remembers the euphoric childhood joys of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich while leaving a Brit puzzled why anyone would make such a mix. The Brit is sulking a little because the Yank laughed at the idea of smoked herring kippers with marmalade.

The masala chai combinations and their extensions represent not a “tea” but an intrinsic part of everyday life in India, one of the most varied, complex and multi-everything societies on the globe.

Masala chai

Here is the typical ingredient label for a mid-range masala chai:

“Black tea [the standard is Assam “ground tea” but premium masala chais use high grade whole leaf], cardamom [the essential chai spice, with green cardamom pods the best, black cardamom a complement and flavor extension, and white cardamom a low grade reminder that all agricultural goods are the targets for processed cheap mass market varieties], cinnamon [stick and twig, not powder; it’s the inner bark from a tree and the rolled “quills” provide a more pungent sweet taste that the standard US powder, which is from the related cassia plant], ginger, clove and black peppercorn.”

Here’s a simple schematic that I developed to help my own mapping. I provide very brief comments, but there’s so much to add.

The progression of quality from mass market to premium teas.

The progression of quality from mass market to premium teas.

Chai has four building blocks: the base tea, spices, milk and sweetener. Looking over the wide range of choices on the market, it seems to me that they generally center on one of these. The Indian masala chai and home recipes are very much milk-based. That’s the basic appeal to most Indian chai-lovers. It’s also the core explanation for the growing sales of bubble tea – boba – that is has expanded across Asia and is growing fast in Europe and parts of the US. For the Westerner that’s probably the key issue: how much do you enjoy milky and creamy drinks?

The tea component of masala chai has historically been Assam CTC – The Cut, Tear and Curl machine-formed pellets that comprise 85% of production and that opened up the domestic tea market. CTC is far cheaper than hand-plucked and artisan-treated “orthodox” tea.

It is also an ideal base for chai. It stands up well to sugar and milk, is full and malty and brews its ingredients smoothly at a slightly lower temperature than for plain Assam or Assam-based blends. The lowest grade powder does not add much to a chai; it’s a background base for the spices. It’s a good household and chaiwallah ingredient.

Specialty chais are increasingly using high grade whole leaf Assam: look for ones with FTG in the label – Flowery Tippy Golden. Is this really better than the CTC BOP – B for Broken? Your choice. If you are adding plenty of sweetener and milk, then probably not. The extra subtleties and aromatic complexity of the whole leaf gets lost.

For the classic plain tea drinker, it is worth it. Blenders are using Nilgiri black, Darjeeling oolong and even green and white tea. Many of these are iffy. Vegetal greens don’t go well with most spices and get layered with too much sweetener. That said, the complexity and slight fullness of Indian oolongs makes for some excellent chais.

Spices for chai

Photograph by Manas Anjaria, for Teabox

The spices

Spices are what chais are all about, just as flavored teas are built on fruit peel and zest, floral petals and herb ingredients. The main differences among masala chais are in the combination of the base spices, additions to them, and of course their quality.

The core spice set is:

Green cardamom: the dominant chai flavor component, so make sure it’s top quality. It’s one of the most expensive of al,l and seeds, powder and white cardamom are widely used as cheap substitutes (white is second grade green bleached with hydrogen peroxide). The roasted green pods provide pungent sweetness and an aromatic flavor that don’t overwhelm the tea.

Black cardamom is not truly cardamom but a botanical relative. Its small seeds add a smoky and peppery flavor.

Cinnamon is pungent and sweet and for me obviates the need for heavy sugaring. It’s made from the inner bark on trees and formed into the well-known cinnamon stick. The best comes from Sri Lanka but most of what is sold in the US is made from the cassia tree and is not as fiery.

Cloves add a pleasant bite to the tea that can offset the softness of the cardamom. A little goes a long way.

Ginger provides a sweet hit. Slices of its fresh root are much, much more flavorful than powdered or crystalized ginger.

Black peppercorns are both warming and a surprisingly compatible addition to the mix. One of my own conversion moments was trying a chocolate chai. Dark, bitter chocolate and pungent pepper didn’t sound promising. It was superb. The first taste of chocolate was followed by the sweeter cinnamon and ginger overtones and then the unfolding of the peppercorn which took over my senses.

The art of the chai blender is to modulate these very distinct and strong ingredients so they stand out but complement each other. There are a number of other used more selectively than this base of five; fennel for a light liquorice, saffron, the world’s most costly spice, for its pervasive and delicate aroma, star anise for a stronger aniseed than that of fennel, nutmeg and mace for a spicy pepper taste that also has the penetrating softness of cinnamon. Occasionally, vanilla bean, lemon, almonds, bishop’s weed, holy basil, almonds and bay leaf may be added.

In choosing my chais, I vote for the spices. I avoid the milk.

Milk

For many Indian drinkers for whom masala chai is as embedded in the culture and perhaps even DNA as peanut butter and jelly is in the US, the creaminess, caramel tinge and softness of milk is an essential element of chai. What complicates the issue is that what “milk” covers is not just cow’s milk. Buffalo milk is the foundation of the Indian chai tradition, and the old British tradition of evaporated and condensed milk lives on in parts of India and in Hong Kong.

Cow’s milk is the main choice, for its richness. Low-fat skimmed milk is a poor option, as are the edible plaster of paris dairy creamer powders. This is a matter of chemistry. The molecules of the aromatic oils bind best with the fatty ones of milk. It’s something to do with benzene rings.

Traditional Indian family chai recipes very much center on the milk, boiling it at the start of the tea-making and mixing in other ingredients. Chai lattes incorporate it in their base ingredients. Assam tea is by far the one most associated with milk.

In my own case, if I were to drink a milk-loaded chai, I would write it off. Occasionally, I have added a splash and a dribble of rich cream. That does add to the fullness of the heavy and plainest Assam chais, Bombay Cutting, Kolkata Street and Punjabi Masala. I suggest that you factor this difference into your exploration; the milk is a choice not a requirement.

Sweeteners

Most chai drinkers add sweeteners. Chai latte lovers are getting a sugar overload. Some heavy chais do seem to need at least a little offsetting sweetening, though those that contain plenty of cinnamon and ginger are naturally sweetish.

My own suggestion is that you make sure that what you add matches the quality of the spices. I have found honey by far the best, especially clover honey. Honey relies on its flower source: orange blossoms, lavender, rosemary and other herbs. It is a marvelous blend of subtle richness and lightness. There really is no clearly better sweetener. Brown sugar, maple syrup, cane sugar and other rich unrefined additions to chai preserve its natural and piquant flavors without overpowering the tea. By contrast, artificial low calorie flavorings add a bitter sharpness, and white sugar is empty calories and very unhealthy. Again, your choice,

Buying chais

Chais are very reasonably priced, about the same as a better quality tea bag or low priced whole leaf tea. The only luxury ones are those that include vanilla bean and saffron. Expect to pay $3-4 an ounce, $15 for 100 grams. That’s 25-30 cents a cup.

I suggest focusing on the spices. It seems no coincidence that the best providers generally show images of the cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods and black peppercorns. If you are making your own chai, which is easy to do though hard to get right, keep away from the overpriced grocery ground spices and ones in bottle and tins. The same with buying packaged chais and concentrates. The foundation of chai is the spice experience.

I recommend giving an extra attention to Indian providers with a strong record of custom blending and premium estate teas. Many chai spices are produced in a number of countries and are excellent. Guatemala’s cardamom is very highly rated. Brazil and China’s ginger harvests compete for prestige – and exports. The coast of Malabar in India is noted for the best peppercorns.

The reasons for picking Indian providers is not just the rich tradition and expertise as the home of chais, but the breadth of its spice industry, the centrality of its position in the spice supply market and its spice-dominated magnificent variety of cuisines.

My personal view is that US firms have a long way to go. The specialist mass market brands are average on just about every dimension: tea, spice, milk and sweetener which all adds up to nothing much.

Overall, my confession is that chais are much more well worth exploring than I realized, my conversion has been to seek out varied and unusual chais with top of the line spices and good quality leaf tea, and my surprise is just how much there is to discover. The surprise element is perhaps the most enticing. Try the Maharaja Rana oolong, or a Kashmiri green chai. They’re different and grab your attention.

You may well hate what I like. Regardless, I think chais are worth adding to your occasional and even regular drinking and that they are by and large a much better option than the flood of flavored Earl Grey offsprings and orphans that make mediocrity seem an achievement.

To explore the Teabox range of chais, click here.

Featured banner image by Manas Anjaria

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  • Peter GW Keen
    Peter Keen has been a professor at leading universities across the world, including Harvard, MIT and Stanford in the US and in Singapore, The
    Netherlands, Mexico and UK. He is the author of over thirty books on the links between business innovation and technology.
    Peter was born in Singapore, brought up in England and now lives in Virginia in the US.

    Peter loves tea and loves writing. His latest book, Tea Tips: A Guide to Finding and Enjoying Tea was published in February 2017.
  • All Posts from Peter GW Keen

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