In recent years, a new flavor has appeared in bistros and coffee houses – chai tea. Most often served hot with sweetener and cream, it is a hearty, satisfying drink. So what’s in this drink? Can you create your own at home?
This beverage mix started out in India with the name “masala chai” which translates as “mixed spice tea.” It is based on Assam black tea, a dark, rich, brew grown in the foothills of the Himalayas. The spices are a mixture of cinnamon, cloves, ginger, green cardamom, and black pepper. The cinnamon, cloves, pepper, and ginger I’m sure you recognize but the cardamom might be new to you.
Green cardamom (Eletarria cardamomum) is the seed pod of a member of the ginger family. Cardamom is, pound for pound, one of the most expensive spices available. A typical spice bottle full of cardamom at the grocer’s will cost more than double the amount of other spices.
Both the light green pods and the black seeds of cardamom are ground together to make cardamom powder. The flavor is a somewhat earthy version of cinnamon and cloves. It is commonly used in Indian cooking and – oddly enough – Nordic pastries where it provides the often hard-to-define characteristic flavor of these sweets.
But back to our cup of chai tea latte. The coffee house version can vary from the original recipe of Assam black tea and spices, to an instant powder mix, topped with steamed milk. It’s not hard to find packets of chai tea mix but if you’d like to try your hand at making some, here’s what you need for the basic mix. The original version calls for the spices to be ground fresh in a mortar and pestle but since most of us don’t have that I’ve converted it to the pre-ground versions we buy at the grocers.
- Assam tea or a similar black tea
- Hot half-and-half or cream
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon ground pepper
- 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
This is a rough approximation of the basic spices in chai. Everyone’s taste varies so feel free to experiment with the amounts. One word of warning – go easy on the cloves. This spice has a flavor punch all out of proportion to its volume.
So now you know cardamom is the secret ingredient in chai tea. Next time you are sipping a cup of this delicious brew you can impress your friend by remarking, “Mmmm, doesn’t the cardamom make it taste great?” What they say in reply is your problem – not mine.