How’s this for a holiday gift idea? As a crusader for tea, I suggest that you give all of your non-tea-drinking family and friends a homespun and distinctive version of the tea-spice mix for the famous spiced tea of India. You can make it truly your own by modifying the ratios of spices to tea to sweetening – feel free to tweak the recipe shown below. Although here the tea is flavored, sweetened, and lightened with dairy, it is nonetheless a perfect illustration of tea’s versatility. It would most likely serve as an accessible introduction to the varied pleasures of the leaf to a non-teaophile, bringing a bit of traditional India to the tea-drinking experience.
In my travels through India, chai was a welcome beverage on the clickety-clackety trains, either served by a chaiwallah who went up and down the aisles or dispensed cups of it through the open windows, a memory that I cherish. It is a practice that is arguably fading fast from much of the Western-leaning metropolises of that vast country, as Starbucks and other coffee chains grab the spotlight from tea vendors and the newly upwardly mobile professionals drink that other caffeinated beverage as a sign of sophistication, perhaps.
Using fresh ingredients, of course, is key. If the tea and spices have no aroma, the resulting drink will be disappointing, sending the recipients in the other direction. So be sure to buy good-quality black tea leaves (they can be the more finely ground kinds, including CTC (crush, tear, and curl) processed). Start with whole spices, such as cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks, whole cloves, and pungent whole black peppercorns. I like to add some deep dark rich cocoa powder to the mix, which not only adds one more appealing note of flavor, but mellows out some of the sharpness of the spices. If you wish to make the mix completely shelf stable, you can choose to add non-fat dry milk powder (instead of requiring the recipient to add liquid milk when preparing the beverage), but that is up to you.
Here’s the recipe for eight generous servings. Package it in an airtight tin or glass jar, label it, date it, and provide the recipe for it so that when the mix is used up, those at the receiving end of your generosity can make up more and keep the habit going.
12 T. black tea, coarsely ground as purchased (those from Nilgiri in southern India or Assam from the Northeast would be perfect)
16 cinnamon sticks
4 t. whole black peppercorns
4 t. whole cloves
4 T. cardamom pods (the beige to slightly greenish colored whole pods with black seeds inside)
4 t. ground ginger
8 T. good-quality dark cocoa powder (Valhrona or Callebaut brands are reliably good)
4 T. non-fat milk powder
8 T. light or medium brown sugar
In a coffee or spice grinder (that has never been used for coffee), process the first six ingredients until finely ground. Place into a small bowl and add the cocoa powder, milk powder, and brown sugar. Mix to blend well and then divide into giftable containers that have tight-fitting lids. Label, date, tie with a ribbon or any other decoration that you wish, and give. On the directions for use, advise the recipients to use about 1 T. of the mix to 8 ounces of good-quality water, brought to a boil, whisking the liquid in a small bowl to keep it free from lumps. Pour through a fine meshed sieve, transfer quickly to heated cups, and serve. If a richer or sweeter final result is desired, add a bit of condensed milk to the water (about 1 T. per 8 ounce serving) when heating.