When we were young, Laura used to call this “rice pudding tea”. You only really found it in the cheaper Indian caffs, or you had to make it yourself. Boiling together water, sugar, milk, tea leaves and spices. Mostly cinnamon and cloves, maybe some powdered ginger for heat, and cardamom pods if you could afford them. Deliciously warming and sweet. I wasn’t a tea-drinker, really, yet I loved it.
Then we finished university, real coffee became easier to get and a bit more affordable, life got in the way. And what with one thing and another, chai became a nostalgic treat. One of the things was diabetes, so it became a bit risky to have in a restaurant with the sugar overload involved.
In the past couple of years, Chai has surfaced into popular cafe culture, although most of it is a cruel parody. Caterers can buy a syrup or powder, which they use in a variety of ways. Starbucks make their own, of course, and I think that might have been the first one I tasted. You can just stir the mix into hot water and add milk, or make it with steamed milk from the coffee machine. Chai Tea Latte has become a standard. One of the problems with it is that the mixes are sugar-based, so you can’t control the level of sweetness – unless, of course, you want to add more. The other easy option for the consumer is to buy spiced Chai tea and make it at home. Twinings do a Chai teabag, which is widely available. Recently I’ve started drinking a tea flavoured just with cardamom, from Ahmad Teas, which I get from my local Persian supermarket.
Once you refine your personal preferences down in terms of spices, some of the commercial ones are like being kicked in the head. The Starbucks one in particular has way too much black pepper in it – John says it reminds him of the coltsfoot cough sweets he used to have as a child.
On our recent trip to Mumbai, I had masala chai regularly. The one in the hotel (in the picture) came in smallish vacuum flasks, was fairly bland, and had the gritty crushed spices lurking in the bottom. You could get chai anywhere, on the street from guys wandering round with flasks, and in cafes. I was surprised by the street vendors and some of the cafes who served it in tiny little paper cups, like you get the mouthwash in at the dentist. Until I tried it and realised it was the chai version of a double shot espresso, with a wham that kept you going through the muggiest monsoon afternoon. Well worth 7 rupees. Most areas of India have their own preferred blends of masala for the chai, some with an aniseedy background from fennel, some more hot with fresh ginger, and it was the regional variations surfacing in the different kitchens. Our hotel chefs had a strong Malay background, and used cloves for the peppery constituent, and a softer hand with the cinnamon.
As we journeyed through airports on our way to Australia, I found a lot of international coffee bars doing the Starbucks thing, and offering a Chai Latte. Most were, well, tolerable, if oversweet. When we got to Port Douglas and went shopping for supplies for the apartment kitchen, I could only get Twinings Australian blend of Chai with Vanilla, which is fine for when you want a vanilla flavoured drink that tastes vaguely of tea, but not otherwise. Bleugh.
Then I realised the Australian shopping mantra: Do Not Buy Things In Supermarkets. We travelled from Port Douglas north onto the area around the Daintree River, where they grow lots of interesting things including sugarcane and tropical fruits and tea. A packet of Daintree Original Chai is coming home with me (I bought it from the Daintree Ice Cream Company shop but I also saw it in the Australian Product Shop at Cairns airport). The sample pot we had was rich but delicate and light, very fresh tasting. The spices are crushed rather than ground, with recognisable pieces of cinnamon and dried ginger. There is a star anise element, which replaces the fennel and gives an almost Chinese overlay.
In the hotel coffee shop in Melbourne this morning I came across Tea Drop Malabar Chai, which was even more fragrant, due to the inclusion of rose petals. That’s a Northern India / Kashmiri / Pakistani element, and I’ve not really come across it before. It was a bit too elegant for a morning wake-up call, but it would be a beautiful after-dinner or late summer afternoon drink. I was particularly pleased that they offered the option of having it as a plain pot of tea with cold milk on the side, or made up with hot milk as a latte. Most places it’s one or the other, and usually the latte. This blend was too delicate to stand up to that, the sweet tones would have predominated and it would have lost its balance.
Yesterday we did a tour of the Victoria Market, and there was a tea specialist shop in with the delis. I might go back tomorrow and see what I can find … and if anyone has suggestions of blends I should look out for in the next week, please let me know!