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Photograph by Michael Amsler

High on Chai

Indian drink adapts to U.S. market

By Marina Wolf

I CALLED DIRECTORY assistance the other day to get the phone number of a chai company in Santa Cruz. We were doing OK until we hit the second part of the name. "Chai. Is that C-H-I...?" No, ma'am. It's not "chia" (watch it sprout!) or chi (good energy, though) or chi-chi (all right, maybe a little bit of that). It's just chai, the spicy, milky hot drink that hit the cafe scene in the mid-'90s and hasn't let up.

In recent years, sales have steadily increased, growing 30 percent a year to reach a projected $22 million in 1999. And there are more than a hundred American chai companies, offering not only "traditional" masala, or spiced chai, but also brews with a decidedly American twist: decaf chai, green-tea chai (get those anti-oxidants), ginseng chai, herbal chai, chocolate chai. It comes in bulk blends, tea bags, or in concentrate to froth, nuke, or otherwise heat with whole milk, or soy milk, or skim milk, or water.

Spiced chai has come a long way from the boiled beverage that is poured out in countless households, street stands, and train stations throughout northern India. The chaiwallahs, or chai purveyors, keep it low-tech: coarsely crushed black tea leaves, a dose of ground spices, milk, and water, boiled until thick and murky and served in cups that could be Styrofoam or cheaply fired clay, but that always are disposable.

THIS SIMPLE preparation captured the senses of visiting Americans, who came to India in the Peace Corps or as visitors to ashrams or just as subcontinental tourists. Back home in the states, so the legend goes, chai flowed through the underground, riding on the wave of all things Indian. Take Masala Chai, the company I was looking up in Santa Cruz. Founder Raphael Reuben acquired the taste for chai at an ashram in upstate New York in the early '70s and began selling a packaged chai blend in 1980.

Masala Chai and other early chai pioneers may have started a trend in more ways than one. "[Raphael] Americanized the recipe," says co-owner Susan Beardsley. "Eastern versions never have all these spices. Usually they only have one or two. And they're a lot sweeter." The Masala Chai mix is sold largely to the health-food market, says Beardsley, so the mix is even less sweet than other American commercial brands.

On this point opinions vary; some say the American chai is much sweeter and creamier than its Indian ancestor. But for sure it's less savory. Fresh Cup, a trade publication for specialty coffee and tea purveyors, reports that many versions produced for U.S. markets have reduced or eliminated the measure of savory spices--fennel, aniseed, and the peppercorns that are key to a really biting blend. It's just one small step away from chai's ayurvedic origins, in which a balance of spices is meant to support the body's own inner balance, and one giant step toward making complex Indian spicing more accessible to an American audience. What's left is very American: sweet spices, like cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, and ginger, and warm milkiness that many of us never seem to outgrow.

Deaf Dog Coffee in Petaluma has been serving chai since it opened more than three years ago; in two years its use has almost doubled. "It's still only 2 or 3 percent of our sales, but we go through an awful lot of containers," says Deaf Dog co-owner Liz Salisbury. Manager Gail Finne reports that she still gets some people asking about the drink, but others seem quite comfortable with it: "We're getting more people asking for straight chai."

Ugh.

Normally, chai mix is blended half and half with milk or a milk analog such as soy milk. But Americans have been quick to make chai their own. In Chai: The Spice Tea of India (Storey Books, 1999), author Diana Rosen and her contributors propose chai cocoa, mocha chai, and such cocktails as toddies; and just about every cafe has its own specialties. A'Roma Roasters in Santa Rosa, for example, offers chai milkshakes and what they call a 'chai spritzer": chai mixed with fresh-squeezed lemonade.

Owner Dayna Irvine says they had been making their own chai up until a year ago, when they switched to a concentrate from Oregon Chai, a Portland-based company whose mixes are among the most popular for cafe owners. "In order to prepare chai from scratch properly, you need to boil it over the stove," says Irvine. "We just couldn't keep up with the demand."

Then there are those who will always make chai from scratch. The manager at Sizzling Tandoor confirmed that they make their own chai (and sounded bemused, if not somewhat offended, at even being asked). Their recipe was more a process than a recipe. "Black tea, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon stick, ground up," he listed carefully. "Boil it, put in sugar and whole milk, boil again." How long does the whole thing take? "About 15 or 20 minutes."

OK, EVEN A SLACKER cafe can steam up a chai from a mix faster than that. And though chai, in its native country, is meant as a relaxing drink with friends and family, we could only expect that Americans would want their chai hot and fast. But, as with all things in a convenience pack, one has to wonder how far chai has moved from its original state. I don't know the answer; I've never been to India.

But I am inclined to doubt the translation between a soot-covered station and a sanitized espresso counter.

There are more than just miles between the two.

Chai Try

IN THE INTEREST of experimentation, I thought I'd do a taste test on homemade chai and chai mix from a container. I mixed the home brew from a recipe in Chai: The Spiced Tea of India ("Diana's Favorite Chai," on page 33, if you want to look it up) and had my lovely and capable assistant mix and nuke the chai concentrate, Mountain Chai from Celestial Seasonings. Here was the process for both:

From Scratch

Locate cardamom--10 minutes.

Locate moldy ginger, scrape until acceptable--5 minutes.

Place cardamom and other whole spices in pan with water and bring to boil, then lower heat and simmer--7 minutes.

Rip open tea bags to measure (the recipe called for Assam, but I'm sure the chaiwallahs would love the convenience of Lipton. Oh, and each tea bag holds a teaspoon)--3 minutes.

Sweep up spilled tea--2 minutes.

Add milk and sugar to spice blend and heat to almost boiling--1 minute.

Turn off heat, add loose tea, stir, and let sit for 3 minutes.

Strain tea and wipe cup--1 minute.

Total: 32 minutes.

Mix

Fill cup halfway with concentrate, fill rest of way with milk, nuke until hot.

Total: 3 minutes.

Results of blind taste: The chai mix had great aroma, but not as much flavor in the mouth, certainly not as much as some of the blends I've had in cafes. They must be adding something extra. It also was not nearly as sweet as the home brew, which I found quite satisfying, maybe not 29 extra minutes' worth, but certainly enough to really wrap up that home-cooked Indian meal right. My assistant called the homemade chai "curiously stronger" and said she would be more likely to choose a chai mix for an evening's worth of drinking.

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From the January 20-26, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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