Everyoneassociates India with chai. While there is no single recipe for chai, theflavors changing at every turn across the country, there is something of a baserecipe. Chai uses CTC (cut, tear, curl) dust, rather than orthodox leaves,which creates an intense flavor that is tamed by the addition of milk andsugar. Chai is not steeped but is an infusion of milk and tea that is allowedto simmer away on the stove, making for a drink that is intense and dense. Theaddition of spices adds more layers to the flavor, which makes the chai morepalatable. What sets some chai apart is this secret ratio and choice of spices.
Indianmasala chai typically uses ginger, cloves, and cardamom. Saffron, nutmeg,fennel, black cardamom, cinnamon, and even black peppercorns make an appearancedepending on which part of the country you are in and the predominant spice ofthe region. Chai has followed the Indian diaspora and can be found far andwide, where it is transformed more by local flavors and preferences. Take alook at some of the chais from around the world!
Hometo the original chai, it’s a street drink, and an everyday beverage. CTC andeven dust tea can make a great chai. Boiled with water, milk and sugar, it’sloaded with spices and consumed piping hot. In Kolkata, it’s served in littleclay cups as matka chai, the perfect biodegradable cup for a takeaway. InMumbai, it’s the cutting chai, pulled high and ‘cut’ to make two half cups. Inthe southern Malabari region, the Sulaimani or kattan chaya is the chai ofchoice, a lemon black tea that assumes gourmet proportions when you add somecardamom to it. Paired with a savory snack, they are the monsoon treats, and amuse to many a poet!
In the Kashmir Valley (India, Pakistan,Afghanistan)
In thecold of Kashmir, food preferences and practices are an interesting mix frommany neighbors. Here, tea is brewed in a samovar,the Russian way of brewing a concentrated tea that is diluted with hotwater before drinking. Through the Kashmir Valley, you can expect to encountereither the kahwa or noon chai. The kahwa has a green teabase colored and flavored with saffron and sliced almonds. The noon chai orsheer chai is also made from green tea leaves and cooked in a samovar. It is apink-colored salty tea served with milk and nuts. Most say, it’s an acquiredtaste, especially if you expect chai to always taste sweet.
To make the noon chai, green tea leaves, milk, salt, andbaking soda are usually cooked in a samovar.It’s the baking soda that gives it a pronounced pink color. The rule about saltover sugar is easily broken. For instance, in Pakistan, noon chai is made withsugar and nuts, and is served at feasts. Visitors to Kashmir can expect toenjoy noon chai at breakfast as an accompaniment to traditional breads.
Variations of noon chai extend into Afghanistan as the qaymaq. Green tea is boiled in water andbaking soda added to it. Once it boils, the brew is aerated by pouring themixture from a height. The baking soda gradually turns the color of the tea adark red. The tea is returned to the stove and milk is now added followed bysugar and cardamom. The addition of milk turns the tea a pretty purple-pink.Just before serving, some clotted cream or qaymaq is heaped on the top.
The Himalayas (Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan)
“Haveyou had tea” is a greeting in Nepal. Something must not be well if your teatime is uninterrupted. Nepali chai is similar to masala chai in India ㄧ it involves boiling tea, water and milk to adark reddish color. Spices added include cardamom, cloves, ginger and pepper.In parts of Nepal, near the border with Tibet, po cha replaces masala chai. Po cha uses yak butter with tea andwater, to which salt, not sugar is added. It’s buttery, almost soupy to drink,and is the drink of choice in the high altitudes. Butter tea in Bhutan is suja, which translates as churned tea.Fermented yak butter is added to boiling water and tea. The flavoring of choiceis salt, not sugar. The mixture is churned and added to a pot of boiling waterand tea. Soupy like the po cha, it’s also churned into a frothy mix.
The Straits (Singapore, Malaysia)
Tehtarik is Malaysia’s national drink. The perfect breakfast in these parts wouldbe roti canai with a mug of teh tarik to wash it down. Teh tarik uses condensedmilk and tea and the mixture is pulled, rather dramatically, between twovessels, to create a frothy top layer, and also to mix the tea with the thickcondensed milk. And no, it won’t work as well with plain milk or even cream.
InSingapore too, most kopitiams servesteh tarik. But if that is not available, you may want to try the yuanyang. It tastes like milk tea and isalso called kopi cham. That shouldgive you a clue! Yuanyang means a pair of mandarin ducks, a male and a femalethat pair off surprisingly well ㄧ just like this drink, which is roughly two parts sweet milk tea withone part coffee.
Far East (Hong Kong)
HongKong has an interesting connection with tea, an Anglo-Chinese legacy, as aformer colony. The Nai Cha is the Hong Kong milk tea, made from black tea towhich milk and sugar (or condensed milk) is added. The choice tea begins withbase of Ceylon tea to which other teas are addedㄧeach tea maker has their own secret blend ㄧ and is placed in a cheesecloth bag, which is“cooked” and “pulled” in a tea kettle. The result is a thick black decoction towhich condensed milk (black & white or longevity are popular brands) isadded. Locals will insist that you cannot specify the amount of milk added, andthat it’s a matter of trust. However, customers can choose to add as much sugaras they’d like.
Naicha is a Hong Kong institution. Served in the cha chaan tengs, these are thelocal restaurants where you can stop for a quick bite, down some sweet milktea, huddled around a table with a bunch of strangers, united by a love for naicha. There are even competitions for the best Nai Cha!
PS:Also interesting is the other name for the nai cha - pantyhose tea or stockingtea, named so for the sock like filter used to “pull” the tea.
The Arabian Gulf (UAE)
Travellingwestward, to what’s really coffee country, chai surprised by occupying a placeof significance in the Arabian Gulf. Chai karak in the United Arab Emerites isa south Asian legacy, and an adaptation of the kadak chai or masala chai. Wherethe south Asian masala chai is packed with spices, the chai karak uses mainlycardamom. Black tea - CTC or dust is boiled in water with cardamom. Milk andsugar are added. While Dubai and Qatar are both significant global tea blendinglocations, the tea on the street remains the chai karak. Karak stops are famousand attract a loyal clientele. It is now possible to enjoy a chai karak withmore custom spices, beyond cardamom.
Chai latte (UK and the USA)
And ofcourse, there is chai latte, made famous by Starbucks, a milk tea version bestknown in the West. Unfortunately, this version of chai does not do the originalproud. Excessively sweet, with an unsavory mix of spices, it lacks the warmthand the heart of its eastern counterparts. Chai latte may not unseat coffee,but two decades after it made its first appearance, you can walk in to almost anychain cafe and order one of these drinks, and that says something about itsacceptance.