Let's talk about food: Chai tea


Kurt Knudson was a successful Broadway playwright. Original copies of his plays were being sold for $5 each during an estate sale at his home in Sandpiper a few years ago. Though I wanted to buy them, having plenty of old paper of my own, I wasn’t sure what to do with them.

So I bought his 5-quart, heavy-bottomed pot instead. It’s the nicest pan I have. I use it to make chai tea.

The first time I had chai, it was out of a boxed mix. It was nice and sweet, but unremarkable and bland. The next time was nothing like the first. It was after a ceremony in a temple high in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The chai was authentic, made by an Indian gentleman who carefully watched as it simmered on the stove. It was an hours long process. He had helpers, even. 

It was cold that afternoon. The tea was wonderful — spicy, but not overly so, warming and stimulating. 

Chai is traditionally made with black tea, spices and milk. The combination of spices vary, but most recipes include ginger, cardamom, black pepper, cinnamon and cloves. I sweeten mine with honey and add a little bit of tumeric.

I generally like things spicy, strong and hot. Filling Kurt Knudson’s pan with filtered water, I add a few cinnamon sticks and cloves. I recently ran across a recipe that called for bruised cardamom pods, and I’ve been using those, but ground cinnamon and cardamom will work. Peppercorns ground fresh with a mortar and pestle might improve my recipe, but I don’t have one, so I throw in a spoonful of coarse pepper and a dash of tumeric. I grate a couple inches of organic ginger root and let it all simmer until the water turns dark. I steep a dozen or so teabags, stirring in some honey after I strain it.

Milk that contains fat works best when steeping the herbs and tea in milk, as opposed to non-fat. I don’t add the milk in until I serve the chai. I make a big pot of strong tea and keep it in a jar in the refrigerator. I reheat the tea on the stove, careful not to let it boil, then add frothed milk. 

While I dreaded adding another appliance to my overcrowded kitchen, my milk frother is essential. I use it daily. Alternatively, the tea and milk can be heated together in a saucepan over the stove.

I find chai a satisfying alternative to coffee. My own recipe has evolved over the years I’ve been making it. It’s a process, not an exact recipe. It could be made with green tea instead of black tea, or a mixture of the two. Some might like a bit of anise added. Any kind of milk will work — coconut milk making a delicious dairy-free latte. Chai is also refreshing iced. 

Not a fan of boxed mixes served in most cafes, I recommend two of my local favorites if you want to give it a try before going through the effort of making your own. The Green Salmon in Yachats and Panini in Newport both make a mean chai.

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