After a winter that seemed like it would never end, we have finally made it to the hot and humid days of mid-summer. Somewhat ironically, these days I find myself coming back to the same drink that got me through that long cold winter – fresh brewed chai tea.
The phrase “chai tea” is actually redundant. Our word chai comes from the Hindi word for tea, and it turns out that most people across South Asia and the Middle East, and even most of China, use some variant of cha or chai for the word tea (the Hindi word chai comes from the Chinese “cha” (茶); however, in some southern Chinese dialects the same word is pronounced “teh,” which is how we got the English word “tea” instead).
Here in the U.S. the word chai has come to mean that distinctly Indian blend of strong black tea, spices (usually a mix of ginger, cardamom, and one or two other ingredients depending on the specific blend), and milk. Hot or iced, it has taken the American beverage world by storm as one of the most popular café teas and as a delicious, savory alternative to coffee. Interestingly, this tea may be closest to some of the first teas ever made – which were used as medicine and prepared more like a broth than the sweetened drinks we see today. This practice persisted in some parts of Asia, and developed into chai as we know it during the British effort to break China’s tea-producing monopoly by establishing tea plantations in India.
While I always consider chai the perfect winter-weather complement because of its warming spices, there’s something about those same spices that takes on a new dimension in the bright, full sunlight of a summer day. I discovered this for myself in Malaysia, sipping hot chai at my friend’s home near the beach without a second thought for ice. Back home, I more often opt to keep things cool with iced chai, where those spices add an extra punch that makes it one of the most refreshing and delicious iced teas I’ve ever had.
Unlike most other teas, chai is traditionally brewed by boiling tea in water for several minutes (as opposed to pouring just-boiled water over the leaves and leaving them to sit). This helps bring out the full flavor of the spices, and also creates a bolder black tea infusion that can hold its own amidst all those competing flavors.
Our newest chai addition to the shop comes from Chai Wallahs of Maine, and it is a strong, authentic chai blended right here in New England! As aficionados of both hot and iced chai, I asked them to share their favorite way to brew up some refreshing iced chai at home.
For two cups Iced Chai:
- In a pot, combine 1 Tablespoon chai and 1 cup water.
- Bring to a boil and let boil for 5 minutes.
- Add 1-2 Tablespoons of honey (to taste).
- Strain the mixture and stir in 1 cup cold milk.
- Pour over ice and serve!
Rob Campbell is a culinary adventurer, world traveler, science geek, and also the assistant tea buyer at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge.