Chai tea has become quite common in the US in recent years. While it is still considered a bit of a newcomer here, it has been a staple in India for many generations. Like many traditions, the change from one culture to another is not always smooth.
The current view of chai in the US, especially in coffee shops, seems to be a sweet and creamy drink with a few spices thrown in for a mild flavor. It can be served hot or cold. This is very different from its intended use in India.
Another difference I have noticed is that the term “Yogi Tea” is often used for chai that is a bit spicier and drunk for therapeutic reasons while the beverage known as “chai” is often sipped for enjoyment and tends to be more on the sweet and creamy side.
Spices are a way of life in India. Cumin, black pepper, ginger, cinnamon, fennel… the list goes on. While these lend a delicious flavor to the food and drink, there is a deeper reason for their use.
Many traditional forms of healthcare view proper digestion as the key to health. The Ayurvedic system from India is no exception. Their view is that when a proper diet (anabolic – nourishing) is thoroughly digested (metabolic – transforming) with the waste products sufficiently eliminated (catabolic – breaking down), balance and health are the result.
Where does chai fit into this framework?
For proper digestion to occur, the Fire element must be strong. The primary characteristic of fire is transformation; like a log being broken down into ash or dough changing into a loaf of bread.
The purpose for a quality cup of chai is to nourish the digestive fire with spices and to ensure that heavier foods such as dairy products or meats are properly transformed. This is why it is traditionally served with, or just after, a meal in Indian restaurants.
Some common spices used in chai include black pepper, ginger, cinnamon, fennel, nutmeg, cardamom and cloves. While black tea is common, it is definitely not required. I think the flavor is much better without it.
Using chai in this way means it should not be overloaded with either sweeteners or milk, although a light touch with either is fine.
As a real cup of chai increases the digestive fire, it is not helpful for people who already have too much heat in their digestive system. This includes folks with heartburn, inflammation, hyperacidity, gastric reflux or even ulcers.
When is chai most appropriate to drink? After a large meal or eating foods that have a heavy nature such as animal products: cheese, eggs and meat. It is almost always helpful for people with colder, weaker digestion. This is especially true for people who have a dominant Kapha dosha (endomorph) in the Ayurvedic system. Vata people benefit with a bit of milk and sweetener added.
There are many options and recipes floating around and everyone has their favorite version. The recipe given here is a good place to start; experimentation is encouraged.
To 1 quart simmering water:
1/4 tsp fresh ground black pepper
1 level TBSP cardamom seeds
3 sticks of cinnamon
2 Tablespoons of fresh grated ginger
Simmer covered for 5 minutes.
Turn off the heat and steep an additional 15 minutes.
A light touch of milk or sweetener of choice can be added although I find this spicy brew delicious as is.
The flavor, aroma and therapeutic effects come from the volatile essential oils in the spices. As these evaporate readily when heated, it is important to keep the pot covered at all times and not to simmer too long. It is also essential to use fresh spices rather than the jars of powder found in a mainstream supermarket.