http://www.zachhodgson.comI am on a mission. I’m looking for the perfect chai. You all know what I’m talking about. Chai. Spiced black tea that’s spicy, but not too spicy, sweet, but not too sweet, and all-around delicious; a perfect treat that complements everything from a rainy winter morning and a good book to an Indian feast of chicken tikka masala and fresh naan. You know, chai.

Now, it’s one thing to go into an Indian restaurant and order a chai to go with dinner, but a whole different endeavor to make it at home. Most tea shops will offer some sort of house chai blend with most of the requisite ingredients, but I have yet to find one that matches up with the chai I describe above. I just don’t think that chai is something that you can steep for five minutes, add a splash of milk and honey to, and be on your merry way.

To make a successful chai, or masala chai as it were, you need several ingredients. The first is tea, preferably Indian in origin if you’re going for full authenticity, but any good black tea will do. Without tea, all you’re going to be making is spicy milk. If spicy milk is what you’re going for, however, please omit the tea by all means. There’s no judgment here. The second critical ingredient is milk. Traditional chai is predominantly made with milk. I like to make mine around 1/2-3/4 milk. Feel free to use whatever type of milk or lactose-free alternative you desire, but I prefer whole milk. The fat content of the milk you choose will largely influence the richness of your chai. Finally, we come to the spices. Spices put the “masala” in “masala chai.” Masala is Indian for “spice” and is therefore quite the important addition. The star players in chai are cardamom, black pepper, ginger, cloves, and cinnamon, each adding its own unique twist and flavor. The mixture of spices is as varied as there are chai drinkers. I’ve seen blends that include everything from anise seeds to mint and bay leaves. I encourage you to take my recipe, experiment with your own preferences, and report back. Like I said, I’m searching for the perfect chai and would love to hear your suggestions.

The perfect chai (makes 32 ounces)
Well balanced and just sweet enough, this delightfully spicy blend of ingredients lends itself perfectly to any occasion.

Ingredients:
2 cups water
2 cups milk (plus a little more if the water boils down too much)
4 tsp black tea
Spice mixture (give the spice mixture a little grind with a mortar and pestle to increase the surface area and draw out some of the natural oils)
–  1 tsp dried ginger (not ground)
–  4 tsp sugar
–  16 peppercorns
–  8 whole cloves
–  8 green cardamom pods (split to reveal the seeds)
–  2 3-inch cinnamon sticks
–  1 star anise

1. In a medium sauce pan, bring water to a boil. Once the water reaches a rolling boil, remove it from the heat and add the tea leaves. Let it steep for three (3) to five (5) minutes.
2. Strain the tea leaves, add the spice mixture, and bring back to a boil.
3. Reduce the heat and let the mixture simmer for ten (10) minutes.
4. Add milk and sugar and bring the temperature back up to around 150 degrees F. to prevent scalding.
5. Strain into a pot, serve, and enjoy.

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Variation: Sweet and extra spicy chai

Using less sugar and adding red pepper gives this chai an extra kick that’s sure to surprise and delight you and your guests.

Ingredients:
2 cups water
2 cups milk (plus a little more if the water boils down too much)
4 tsp black tea
Spice mixture (give the spice mixture a little grind with a mortar and pestle to increase the surface area and draw out some of the natural oils)
–  1.5 tsp dried ginger (not ground)
–  2 tsp sugar
–  16 peppercorns
–  8 whole cloves
–  8 green cardamom pods (split to reveal the seeds)
–  1 3-inch cinnamon stick
–  1 small dried red chili
–  1 bay leaf

There you have it, the perfect chai (at least so far). I’m still experimenting and I hope to keep you updated with my findings and progress and would encourage you to do the same. I’d also like to encourage you to search out a local spice shop since many of these ingredients can be found much cheaper if you can get away from the brand names. For instance, my local shop – a great little Indian grocery store – sells whole cardamom pods for less than $3 an ounce. Compare that with over $7 an ounce from one of the leading brands. This not only encourages me to make chai more often and for more people, but also to experiment more, bringing me closer every day to the elusive perfect chai.

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