This year marks the 10th anniversary of our spice store Olives & Epices! To underline this auspicious birthday, once a month, we will be putting the spotlight on a product in our collection, that has been an integral part of our spice adventure and which has gone on to become a classic.
With so many chai recipes out there, it’s kind of difficult to find the most authentic representation of an authentic Indian chai recipe. We at Spice Trekkers are, of course, deeply interested in which spices can be considered real chai spices, so I wanted to get to the bottom of this question. We all know tea, milk, sweetener, and spices, but which spices exactly? Even a cursory glance at chai recipes on the internet reveals an infinity of interpretations of the renowned sub continental pick-me-up. Compiling a full list of recipes is impossible, although some admirable and enjoyable attempts have been made (like the Kickstarter-funded Chai pilgrimage book). Other approaches include documenting the lives of chai wallahs, or chai makers, as a way to understand the culture surrounding how chai is drunk. But the authenticity of a chai, as I discovered, depends on regional, family, and personal histories and preferences, making the completion of a comprehensive list impossible. It’s not only impossible, it’s undesirable. As we confirmed with chef extraordinaire, Vikram Vij, in designing our own chai many years ago, there’s no ultimate, universal chai. An authentic chai recipe really only has one ingredient: whatever makes you happy.
First, a note on nomenclature. The tea and spice concoction we’re drinking is called masala chai, as opposed to chai, as it’s commonly called in English. Chai is simply the Indian word for tea, and therefore ordering a chai in India will simply get you a cup of straight tea. For the spicy chai we’re looking for, we should technically add the word masala, which means spice blend, before the word chai. Masala chai is the actual word for the tea and spice beverage served with milk and sweetener. However, thanks to decades of training by coffee chops, people just use the word “chai” in English, and so do we.
You’ll see a lot of authentic chai recipe claims floating around the unending rumor mill we call the internet. The five chai spices that I found most commonly included on these lists are: ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, clove, and black pepper (here’s one example for “authentic” chai at home, and another from fellow Canadian blogger Jo). I think a chai with those spices sounds delicious. Fennel joins that list a lot, too, like in this recipe from the Kitchn. In addition to trying to find the optimum spices, many chai makers also debate the best sweeteners. Sugar and honey are the most famous, followed by maple syrup and, more recently, agave nectar. While many consider sugar to be the most authentic, honey has been used for much longer. The same is true for milk: condensed, low fat, cream, almond, soy, all make the list as the best for chai. The one thing everyone can agree on is that skim milk is unacceptable, since some fat is required to extract the spice flavors. That’s about the only common point on ingredients I could find and agree with.
Others might point to the method of preparation. Chai must be brewed with the spices in the milk. Chai must be brewed with the spices in the tea. Transferring the chai from pot to pot makes it frothy. Boil the milk, don’t boil the milk. Strain the spices out, or leave the spices in for an added punch. Many claim that true chai must be made only in a large pot. The point I’m trying to make here is that the more we search for the authentic, the more difficulty we have nailing it down. We had the same issue many years ago with our first foray into chai spice blending, and we were lucky to have inspiration for one of Canada’s greatest chefs, Vikram Vij.
Already renowned for Vij’s, Vancouver’s top Indian restaurant, Vikram is also known for his cookbooks and frequent TV appearances. His approach to authenticity in Indian food in Canada is straightforward: Indian spices and cooking techniques made with local ingredients. His dedication to quality and simplicity is what compelled us to invite him to sample some chai blends with us during his visit to Montreal on a book tour nearly a decade ago. A discussion of Northern Indian tastes and flavors ensued, and we were particularly enamored by the generous fennel-ing he gave his own chai. You can see the chai recipe he serves at his own restaurant here.
You may notice an absence of ginger, considered essential by many, and the omission of clove. This is much more in line with Northern Indian cooking, which tends to have a sweeter twinge to it. The main inspiration for his chai recipe is not regional but rather personal. Vikram Vij just really likes this tea, and so do his customers, famously sipping hot cups in line at Vij’s. It’s a simple, honest, low-stress chai. A few basic ingredients that harmonize nicely (featuring fennel, of course). We applied his concepts to our own chai, and put together the five ingredients that made us smile the most.
I don’t know what region of India our chai could be said to come from. Since we encourage using maple syrup as our sweetener, I’d guess probably none. That’s just not, as we discovered, the point. The point is to combine tea, milk, sweetener, and spices into a satisfying brew. Whether or not that brew contains ginger, or whole milk, or was boiled for exactly three minutes, is immaterial. And if someone exclaims in disgust that your inclusion of nutmeg, or rose, or palm sugar, or what have you, is somehow inauthentic, you can tell them that complaining about the tea instead of actually drinking it is the most inauthentic thing a person can do. As Vikram Vij says in his cookbook Vij at Home, “Relax, honey, and just enjoy …”
You can check out the Spice Trekkers chai here. Try a cup and add whatever else tickles your fancy. We like maple syrup, and we find that fresh ginger or even condensed milk can make a fun variation. So try a cup, and add your own twist. And if your first sip makes you smile, you’ll know you’ve got a truly authentic Indian masala chai.