Friday, February 26, 2016

Spice List for Homemade Chai

If you didn't know, the term 'chai' simply means 'tea.' Shaped by U.S. vernacular, what many of us know as a 'chai tea' is actually called masala chai. With masala chai being a favorite drink of ours, we thought it would be fun to explore different spices in masala chai. Here is what we found:

The Essential Spice: Green Cardamom

When we talk about "chai-flavored" anything, in my opinion the dominant flavor we're really talking about is green cardamom. Intensely fragrant, with sharp vegetal notes of green spice and pepper, green cardamom pods are harvested earlier than black cardamom, which is muskier and more smoky.
Green cardamom is the base of most chai recipes that I am aware of. I like to buy green cardamom from the bulk bins at my local health food store, and I very lightly crack the pods before steeping them in the tea.

The Other Essentials (In My Humble Opionion)

After green cardamom the taste of chai can diverge in a few different directions. However, these four spices are perhaps most commonly used, and they form the base of the chai that I make the most:
  • Cinnamon stick - For sweetness and warmth.
  • Fennel seed - Offers a gentle anise or licorice note.
  • Fresh ginger - Flavors the whole pot of tea with a fresher spice note.
  • Black peppercorns - Gives the chai a spicy bite, which I love.

Even More Options

But other spices also show up in chai mixes. Here are others I sometimes use:
  • Whole cloves - Musky and strong.
  • Coriander seeds - Sweet and mild, with a citrus note.
  • Star anise - A darker, sweeter licorice flavor than the greener fennel seed.
Green cardamom forms the base of chai, but after that you could mix up nearly any of these spices and have yourself a fine cup. Personally I lean towards extra-spicy flavors with a strong dash of licorice or anise. Perhaps, though, you prefer the holiday baking aroma of cloves, or want to leave out all licorice notes and skip the fennel and star anise. Up to you!

The Best Sources for Chai Spices

I think of chai as a nice gateway to buying whole spices for the first time. If you're like me, you only bought ground spices in bottles until a really compelling project came along. For me, that was Indian cooking, particularly chai, and all of a sudden I was elbow-deep in a fresh supply of whole spices to explore.
But whole spices can be very expensive — unless you know where to look. Here are my favorite places to buy whole spices:
  • From the bulk section: Many health food stores, co-ops, and gourmet groceries have bulk sections for spices and teas. I just stocked up on a lot of spices, including cardamom and peppercorns, and only spent a few dollars on my haul.
  • From the Indian or Asian grocery: My other favorite place to buy spices, especially when I need a lot of them (my cumin seed habit requires supplies in pounds, not ounces), is the Indian grocery. You can buy a big bag of cardamom or other essential spices for reasonable prices.

Ready for a Recipe?

Are you hankering for a hot cup of chai now? Me too. Here are a few good recipes; you can see the dominance of the green cardamom and the diversity of the supporting spices. Any one of these recipes will teach you how to blend your spices and get a pot of tea brewed up.
SRC: Find the entire post and other recipes here:

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