As the weather turns cooler my thoughts return to our exploratory trip to India last year. As I write, I remember the heat of our September in the Indian Autumn as we made our way from Kolkata to Darjeeling, up into the mountains of Sikkim, and then onward to Jaipur, Agra, north to the foothills of the Himalayas near the western Nepalese border, and then back to Delhi. The heat, the sights, the sounds, the colours, the aromas (and smells!) but most of all - the wonderful Chai, Oh the wonderful Chai!
As budding Tea Sommeliers we were eager to try every chai we were offered and with the variety of chai differing from state to state, we quickly realised each had its own special nuance and history. We witnessed the most marvellous theatre as various showmen, for really that is what the Chai Wallas’ are, put on their show with their long arm pouring from height as they brewed their special family recipes that have been around for generations. The array of soot-blackened, battered pots and pans and the spectacular show enrapture the audience, all happy to wait their turn to try the spicy brew on offer.
Our first taste was Saffron Chai served in rudimentary disposable unglazed clay cups at a popular chai house on a stinking hot and humid bustling Kolkata street. How that golden hot liquid cooled our parched throats’ I will never know. The magic had begun, sweet and spicy flavours mixing with the earthy scent of raw clay!
In Jaipur we had a beautiful cardamon chai served in tin cups from the oldest chai shop in the city, we were told by our guide. Seated at dusty formica tables on wooden stools in a small dark underground shop, we looked out through a narrow opening to the crowded street. This chai recipe, it was claimed, was hundreds of years old and passed down through the family.
In the north in the foothills of the Himalayas we had black pepper Chai served in little glasses from a Chai Walla whose shop was a little lean-to iron shack perched literally on the edge of a steep cliff.
A green cardamom and ginger chai waited for us on our road trip to Agra and then a calming Masala chai on the banks of one of the hill stations lakes. Wandering the markets of Delhi the theatre continued as did the delicious chai. A young boy Chai Walla, not much bigger than the saucepan he wielded, impressed us with his pouring finesse. Ahhh, the memories go on!
The term "chai" originates from the Hindustani word "chai", and refers to tea in general in the original language. The name was derived from the Chinese word for tea, "cha". In English, this spiced tea is commonly referred to as "masala chai" or simply "chai".
Traditionally, an Indian Chai is made by steeping loose leaf black tea (generally an Assam) steeped in boiling water and milk, adding a gorgeous combination of spices that can include cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, ginger and/or black peppercorns, and sweetened with sugar or honey. The different combinations and quantities provide the variety and even the cup it is served in can make a difference.
The Brackendale range of Chai is a stunning trio.
Our Taj Mal Chai is reminiscent of a true Masala Chai with its full range of spices. Our beautiful sweet Vanilla Chai is perfectly stunning with its hints of creaminess. If you are looking for an evening chai that won't keep you up at night, then our Rooibos Masala Chai is the one for you. The spices combine with the sweet rooibos making it the perfect evening herbal treat. In the interests of authenticity, we make our Chai the same way as the Indian Chai Wallas make theirs. Half water, half milk, bought to the boil in a saucepan on the stove. Then add the chai and simmer for 3-7 minutes (you have to watch it or it can boil over). Add sugar to the pot to sweeten. (In the case of the Rooibos Masala Chai we use honey instead of sugar). Strain into a cup...and try to stop at just one! I hope you have enjoyed this little journey into the world of Chai as much I have while remembering our wonderful trip. And if you have never had it - why not CHAI it, you really might like it! ;-)