Thursday, 20 December 2012

Hermitcraft: Chai

It's Christmas, when thoughts naturally turn to chai. Well, they do if they're mine, anyway. Chai is not in fact a Christmas drink; it's the daily beverage of India, a nation that hardly has Christmas at all. (And the word itself simply means "tea". Like salsa [sauce] and baguette [loaf], it's a humdrum, general term that English turned into a fancy, specific one.)

But chai is warm like Christmas, sweet like Christmas, and spicy like Christmas. It's the ultimate comfort food, and as good as it is all year, it's especially good now.

The trick to good chai is to mind the honey and not be Nordic with the spices. Hence the downfall of commercial efforts here in North America: too sweet, too bland.

Many years ago I set out to develop the perfect chai recipe. I spent months at it, pushing this, pulling that, until I arrived at the recipe below. I have since received favourable reviews from a wide variety of guests, from tea and chai connoisseurs to rank beginners. And from more than one Indian, a fact of which I am inordinately proud.

So in honour of the season, I share with all interested my most valuable possession. Wield it wisely.

PERFECT CHAI (or: Kensho in a Cup)

For one oversized mug or two teacups:

1 1/2 cups cold water
1/2 cup milk
2 teaspoons strong black loose tea, or two teabags of same*
1/2 teaspoon minced gingerroot
Two inches of cinnamon stick, shredded
2 cloves
1 teaspoon whole coriander seeds
2 cumin seeds (I mean it. Two seeds.)
2 peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon whole cardamom seeds
1 teaspoon anise seeds
a pinch of orange zest, if desired (adds bitterness if the tea leaves aren't strong enough, but go easy)
Enough honey to make drinking pleasant; typically about two teaspoons.

For a pot:

3 cups cold water
1 cup milk
4 teaspoons strong black loose tea, or four teabags of same*
1 teaspoon minced gingerroot
4 cloves
2 teaspoons whole coriander seeds
3 cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon plus 1/4 teaspoon whole cardamom seeds
3 inches cinnamon stick, shredded
3 peppercorns
2 teaspoons anise seeds
orange zest, as above
About four teaspoons of honey.

*Any strong black tea will do. If using teabags, cut them open and dump the leaves in loose. (Always the best policy, even when brewing ordinary tea.)

Place all ingredients in a saucepan and warm gently. Mind that the chai doesn't boil; it shouldn't even bubble. Heat for a minimum of 20 minutes; 45 or better is optimum. (If you plan to steep the chai more than two hours, omit one peppercorn.) Strain into cups, returning the spices to the pot between rounds.

Chai can be made ahead and refrigerated, as long as it's reheated gently. It's also good chilled.

Chai arhats know that success in this powerful alchemy, regardless of recipe, relies on the Four Noble Truths:

1. All ingredients must be infused together. Do not add milk or honey at the table.
2. Chai is all about the spices; if you can taste the honey, it's over-sweet.
3. Boiling is fatal. It flattens the water, exhausts the spices, and burns the milk.
4. A good masala is equal parts quantity and variety. Cumin and peel counter sweetness, and should be just barely detectable. Cloves, pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, and coriander provide mouth and aroma and should be pronounced, without however overpowering the cup. And, crucially: the digestives (anise, ginger, milk, honey) make the whole thing possible. Without them you've got a harsh, even nauseating, stew. If your chai comes out coarse on the tongue or hard on the stomach, pump these up.

Chai goes wherever cocoa does. Take it carolling, or to football games, or serve it at parties. It's also a famous after-meal digestive. I have chai with breakfast most Sundays, steeped during the morning sit.

So from all of us here at Rusty Ring, many happy returns of the season, and best wishes for the new year.
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