There are many things about the US that I started missing immediately after arrival in China: unrestricted internet, entertaining TV, concept of “personal space”, the use of bleach and other disinfectants in public restrooms, just to name a few.
Then there are the foodstuffs that, after months of searching, I came to realize are simply impossible to find. Chinese beers may cost pennies, but anything with actual hops are 3 times the Stateside price. Vegetables are insanely cheap, but good luck finding a decent box of cereal for less than $8. Markets have massive bins of Sichuan peppercorn and any dried seafood you’d desire, but I can’t find cardamom anywhere in the city.
Therefore, friends and loved ones who go abroad are essential to a worldly cook’s sanity. When Jacob returned from his last trip to Hungary, he toted back not only foie gras (hugs!!!), truffles (hugs!!!), and a plethora of Eastern European liquor (drunken hugs!!!), but also whole cardamom and cloves. It’s amazing how much those two spices can automatically freshen up your kitchen cabinets. And it was fitting we would take turns making tons and tons of chai.
There are many different preparations for masala chai (usually replaced by the blanket term “chai” in the West), though standard preparations include black tea, milk, and a sweeteners. My own fail-proof masala chai involves simmering a few cups of brewed black tea with whole cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves for a few minute, adding an equal portion of whole milk at the end, then turning off the heat and stirring in sugar. I have also seen other versions that include ginger, black pepper, star anise, and allspice.
Two nights ago I decided to try out this recipe for Kashmiri chai on Epicurious. It called for chopped pistachios, saffron, and nutmeg in addition to my usual spices (sans cloves). You can also use almonds instead of pistachios. For my own convenience, I threw whole spices into the pot instead of grinding them up beforehand. The recipe also suggests an optional shot of gin (influence from British colonialists, I presume), which I didn’t have. Vanilla vodka from Ikea, though, is a nice subsitute if you use sparingly.
One thing I don’t miss about the US is ordering a chai at a café, naïvely expecting something homemade, and getting an Oregon Chai or Tazo blend every time. Not that I have anything against pre-made chai blends, but they all taste the same, which is of sticky sweet milk. It still amazes me that cafés which proudly advertise their 30 types of artisanal coffee blends will serve chai (and hot chocolate) out of a box.
What is your favorite recipe for homemade chai?
Makes 4 large drinks
- 3 cups water
- 3 cups whole milk
- 2 tablespoons pistachios, shelled and chopped
- 10 whole cardamom pods, or 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1 piece cinnamon stick
- Pinch of saffron threads (10 to 15)
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed
- Pinch salt
- 2 cups brewed black tea
- Bring the water and milk to a gentle simmer.
- Add the pistachios, cardamom, cinnamon, saffron, and nutmeg and simmer over low heat for 3 to 4 minutes, to allow the flavors to infuse. Stir in the brown sugar and salt. Taste and add more sugar if needed. Stir in the black tea.
- Strain the liquid through a fine mesh sieve. Divide into individual mugs and serve while still hot.
Adapted from Gourmet