We Deserve Better Chai
By Suneil Kamath
I’ve been making chai at home myself. I’m embarrassed I ever ordered the coffee shop version. —Katherine
We Deserve Better Chai
by Suneil Kamath
One sip in and I feel the chai’s sugar, “natural flavors,” and citric acid coat my tongue. I fear I might enter a hyperglycemic state. Such is drinking chai in the U.S.
I miss Indian chai. In America, chai has become known as an overly sweet flavor of tea with Thanksgiving spices like cinnamon or ginger combined with steamed milk. In India, though, chai is not a flavor of tea or a specialty beverage; it is tea. Chai literally translates to "tea" in Hindi and is available everywhere, so when a person says "chai tea," they are saying, "tea tea."
Drinking chai in India is a way of life. It’s a social activity performed at least once in the morning and again in the early evening. The chai in India consists of black tea leaves brewed in boiling water with milk, sugar, and a variety of spices, like cinnamon, clove, and cardamom, until it’s well-blended and reflects a creamy, dark brown color. It’s the perfect balance of sweet, spicy, and aromatic. Most places in India, from street vendors to expensive restaurants, serve delicious chai, but one recipe is simply the best: my grandmother’s.
On family trips to India my favorite activity was sitting on the couch pairing my grandmother’s chai with Parle-G biscuits while watching her favorite soap operas. When we would come back home to the U.S., my mom would make chai using the same tea leaves and proportions of sugar, milk, and water. The chai was good, but it tasted different. Sure, there's something magical about your grandmother's cooking, but my mom's chai tasted distinct at a fundamental level. When I talked to my other friends from India, they felt the same way about their experience drinking chai in India compared to the U.S.
I was determined to find the reason why.
Digging into some research, I learned some chemistry. In India, many places use buffalo milk when making chai, compared to the cow's milk we typically use in America.
Buffalo milk contains about 7% fat, while whole cow’s milk is around 3.25%. In experimenting with chai recipes, I tried using half-and-half, but this combination was too rich: half-and-half contains about 10.5%-18% fat. Buffalo milk also has a different mineral and vitamin blend that gives chai echoes of nuttiness and a natural sweetness.
While you can find buffalo milk at some specialty grocery stores and farms in the U.S., it’s not readily available, so I went on a quest to find the best chai in my neighborhood that tasted the most similar to the buffalo milk chai in India: sweet, spicy, and creamy with a strong tea flavor.
In store after store, to my dismay, I saw baristas warm milk and stir in a couple pumps of a chai syrup or concentrate, making a drink that tasted like a sugary cinnamon milk. But, over time, I discovered a few gems and learned a few tricks to suss out whether the chai would taste similar to an Indian one.
First, ask whether or not the store uses loose leaf tea, which tends to be more flavorful compared to single-serve bags, to brew the chai. Second, request that they brew the tea with goat's milk, if possible, which is similar to buffalo milk and more readily available in the U.S. But, if the store doesn’t carry goat’s milk, half-and-half mixed with whole milk works too.
My grandmother passed away over a year ago. Even though I still haven’t found a recipe or a shop that matches hers, every time I drink chai I raise my mug to her.
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