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Chai High

chai
It's a Chai Thing: The froth also rises on a perfect cup of steaming chai.

How masala chai made its exotic and flavorful way from the markets of Bombay to the redwoods of Santa Cruz to a coffeeshop near you

By Ami Chen Mills

The hippest denizens of SoFA cafes are drinking it. At Kismet the Gallery, Gen Xers wearing big, black shoes and sporting raspberry hair are drinking it. At the Coffee Society in Cupertino, earnest students poring over C++ tomes are drinking it. At Blue Rock Shoot in Saratoga, yuppies in power suits are drinking it.

They drink it in mochas and lattes, in place of espresso. They drink it with soy and nonfat. They drink it when another dose of concentrated caffeine threatens to send their nervewracked psyches into permanent psychosis.

Lord knows, South Bay cafe dwellers of all ages, ranks and shoe sizes are drinking it. But what is it?

It's masala chai--the hottest new nonalcoholic drink to hit the valley since herbal tea. While some cafes have been serving masala chai for two years or more, only recently has the exotic libation started to catch on. Now, nearly every trendsetting cafe in Silicon Valley pours chai or will be doing so soon.

But steamy, spicy chai has been threatening to descend on the valley for some 20-odd years. The tea-based drink with foreign origins has decidedly local roots in nearby Santa Cruz.

Chai There

Two years ago, when I lived in the damp and dusky redwoods of Santa Cruz, on a seven-acre property with wood-burning stoves and composting toilets, I awoke most mornings to one of three stimulants: the rhythmic pounding of conga drums by overnight guests in the communal garden, a neighbor's strolling guitar solos or the nose-tingling aroma of brewing masala chai. This last, most gentle awakening was always a pleasure.

My roommate at the time was an herbalist, drummer and tea brewer whose heady concoctions were boiled and steeped in massive steel cauldrons and delivered in battered five-gallon vats from our wood-tiled kitchen in the mountains to the doors of such Santa Cruz institutions as the Jahva House and the Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Company.

In Santa Cruz, the spiced Indian tea called masala chai is as much a staple in cafes and coffee houses as shaved nutmeg and grizzled chess players. This frothy and fragrant drink with a kick was introduced there 23 years ago by Joseph Schultz, founder of the landmark pan-Asian India Joze Restaurant in downtown Santa Cruz.

Schultz had traveled to India, and opened his restaurant with the idea of "doing all kinds of things Indian. I liked this idea of real aromatic tea," he says. In 1973, Schultz developed his masala chai recipe, which, he claims, is more a rich-man's drink in the motherland. "This is similar to what you'd find around Bombay."

The gingery grog--long familiar in Indian-American homes and restaurants--caught on in the well-populated cafes of Surf City. And now, Schultz observes, "A lot of people are trying to hitch their star to chai." Starry-eyed entrepreneurs like my former roommate have been busily steeping and stirring, attempting to corner a sweet little chai market for themselves.

Already, chai is becoming rapidly available in cafes in San Jose and San Francisco. Santa Cruz-based Chai Brewers makes a sweetly subtle chai that carries well over the hill and is in place at more than a few valley cafes. According to co-owner Melissa Sundberg, chai enthusiasm is on the rise in San Jose, where sales to area cafes have doubled since she and her husband bought Chai Brewers last year.

"All the hip kids are drinking it," says Amy Raichert of Kismet the Gallery, a new cafe-cum-art space in downtown San Jose. "It's definitely on the upswing." Eric Mackey says the Coffee Society, which he helps manage, sells out its 10 to 14 allotted gallons of chai every week. " I think there's nowhere for chai to go but up. People are trying it every day."

Information Super Chaiway

The word chai means, simply, "tea" and is derivative of the Chinese phrase for tea leaves, cha-yeh (cha-ee). The word masala refers to the ginger and spice potpourri that is mixed, ultimately, with tea. Thus, the proper name for the resultant brew is masala chai. But Americans will simplify for convenience, and masala chai is known mostly as just "chai."

The tea itself is normally brewed from Indian black or sometimes Darjeeling leaves, and then laced with a masala infusion including fresh ginger, nutmeg, cardamom, cloves, black pepper, cinnamon--and sometimes ground almonds, carob, licorice, chicory, allspice, coriander seed, star anise, orange peel, turmeric, fennel or saffron.

The spiced tea is blended with steamed milk or soy and sweetened with honey. "You need to have some sweetness to be able to detect the sweet aromas of the spices," Schultz notes. His own masala infusion replaces black pepper with cardamom and uses fresh Hawaiian or Chinese ginger, Sri Lankan cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and honey. Schultz adds that even in India, there as many versions of masala chai as there are masala chai makers.

Chai Anxiety

The result of these personality-driven chai combinations can range from the almost unbearably bitter to the disappointingly diluted. At its best, chai is rich and spicy, slightly sweet, but not bitter, with an intriguing but subtle afterbite. "Chai should have a lot of aroma, a real strong, heady, almost perfumy quality to it. The fragrance should take you to other times and other places," Schultz says.

When masala chai is left sitting on a stove too long, the result is a degradation and masking of the subtle spice aromatics by the bitter one-two punch of ginger and tea. "All you get is the heat," Schultz observes. "I don't like that biting on the tongue."

That's why store-bought chai, even locally delivered chai, pales in comparison to on-the-spot brews. "Product with shelf-life is like drinking canned coffee. It's the freshness of the delivery that makes it work," says Schultz.

Chai is an upper. A combination of the caffeine from tea leaves and an infusion of fresh ginger can set the heart racing, but all in all, chai is usually lower in caffeine than regular drip coffee or espresso.

Schultz offers caffeine-free chai at India Joze, along with chai ice cream. In San Jose, you can find Chai Brewers at Kismet the Gallery, Caffe Zucco and Cafe Matisse, and at the Coffee Society in Cupertino and Cuppa Joe in Mountain View, to name a few.

But the best masala chai you ever taste may be the batch you brew in your own kitchen, according to your own tastes. That way, you can tickle the nose hairs of sleepy housemates and soften your window views with exotic-smelling steam early in the morning, when we all need a little sweet stimulation.

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From the June 13-19, 1996 issue of Metro

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