Travelling through India, this was a common word we heard every day – “Chai Chai Chai” the chai wallah’s would call out in their high pitched voices as they walked briskly up and down the train aisles or from their little stalls and trolleys on the bustling dusty streets of every town in every region. One of the things I still remember from my first trip to India was when the doors of the plane opened and you get your first hint of this amazingly colourful place. I was literally hit by a wall of warm spicy air – its really nothing like I’ve ever experienced before. And all those spices, well you soon find out about them at your next meal or chai stop.
This traditional heart-warming drink is so sweet and spicy, probably nothing like the one you have had at your local cafe. Chai means tea, but not a cup of tea as we know it. This special tea is made from black tea leaves, milk, sugar and spices all brewed up, long-poured from one pot to another to blend it, strained and served usually in a glass – and in true Indian style often far too sweet for the Western palate, but we love them for it! Masala Chai is also another name used. There is a real art to making the perfect chai and chai wallah’s are super proud and serious about this way to make a living – we need to appreciate its roots to understand that it is so much more than just “a cup-a-tea love”, as the English would say, but it is a very important part of daily life in India.
Chai has become a bit of a trendy commercial word in the West over the years and you can get a chai latte in almost any cafe these days. Often they are made from the powder or syrup and you can even buy ready-made blends in the supermarket that you just add water to for that quick cup at home. These are full of hidden nasties though, so please read the labels. Some cafes will make chai with tea leaves if they have them (and you ask), so if you want to try something more authentic, be sure to check. I personally prefer the chai made from tea leaves and even better is making it yourself at home!
In Ayurveda we can use chai in a medicinal way by adjusting the spices according to your constitution, any current health concerns and the season. Here is an Ayurvedic inspired chai recipe for Autumn and Winter or to balance Vata – all you need is a pestle and mortar, saucepan, the ingredients below and a desire to experiment with your taste buds!
- 2 cups water
- 2 slices of fresh ginger chopped finely
- 6 green cardamom pods
- 2 black cardamom pods
- 1/2 stick cinnamon
- 4 cloves
- 4 black peppercorns
- 1/2 tsp fennel seeds
- 1 tsp ajwain
- 2 tsp raw sugar
- 2 tsp black tea leaves (or 2 teabags cut open and the tea taken out)
- 1 cup unhomogenised organic milk
- Add water and ginger to a small pan and bring to the boil for 5 minutes.
- Place spices in pestle & mortar and grind a little then add the spices and sugar to the water bringing it back to the boil for a further 5 minutes.
- Add tea leaves and immediately add the milk bringing it back to the boil then simmer for a few minutes until your desired strength. The negative effects of the tannins in the tea are not activated if you add the milk at the same time. You may find the milk will cause the chai to rise up the sides of the pan, so make sure you stay close.
- NB – the spices in this recipe have been adjusted for Autumn and Winter or to balance Vata – so we are using less fennel as it is cooling in nature, and more ajwain and warming spices like cinnamon, black pepper, clove and cardamon. In Summer or when there is too much Pitta adjust it to use less warming and more cooling spices. For Kapha types or imbalance be sure to use less milk and more water, reduce the sweetener and add more warming spices – the heat will surely get things moving.
- Strain before serving. Serves 2. You can add more raw sugar or unheated raw honey when serving if you want the chai to be sweeter.
- Black cardamon and ajwain are not usually available in your local supermarket, however, they are sold in most Indian grocers.
Spiced chai is a balanced and nourishing drink which is good to have throughout the day to help combat those unhealthy cravings and is also great in promoting good digestion.
I recently came across this interesting blog called Chai Wallahs of India where a couple have travelled through this incredible country and written stories about these integral folk – it might just be worth a read if you want to understand more about its prominence in Indian culture – www.chaiwallahsofindia.com.
Picture: Chai spices taken by Three Harmony