South India’s Choice of Drink- Tea
Many of us would have heard the term “chai” bandied about lately by the coffee industry marketers. You may have even seen some of the ready-made concentrates on the shelf at the grocery in the “exotic foods” section. But what is chai exactly? The word simply means “tea” in Hindi, and it refers to the classic “railway tea” of India, prepared with a mix of local spices and milk in almost every train station throughout the country. It’s the drink of choice all over South India and is rapidly becoming as fashionable in the West as the popular coffee-based beverages.
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It will help to understand the origins of the drink if you remember that the (then) pale British palate was superimposed upon the local Nilgiri Hills population.
The British were all about tea a few hundred years ago when they were on the subcontinent colonizing everything in sight. Tea leaf was planted far and wide, and as the ingenious locals were apt to try whatever was available, the preferred drink for everyone in the area soon became a classic cup of black tea with milk and sugar. But then the local palate for spice in everything reared its head, and an impromptu blend of regional cardamom, peppercorn, and perhaps some ginger made its way into the drink.
Tea and its Variations
The “classic” process was simply to boil the whole lot (tea, milk, and spice) altogether over a fire. Then to keep the tea warm over low heat and dip out your cup’s worth throughout the day. Sweetening could be palm sugar or honey. Since the bold spices could hold up to it, plenty was usually the norm. If you fast-forward to modern times, you’ll find the recipes have evolved along the same basic principles. These are spice, tea, and milk, but the variations are too numerous to count. With the classic base, everything from cassia-cinnamon, mace, clove, and nutmeg to methi (fenugreek) and even citrus is added. There simply are no hard-and-fast rules for your choice of flavors to blend into the tea base.
Black tea is the preferred choice, although some have experimented with green tea in the mix—usually with disastrous results. The heaviness of the spice needs the deeper flavors of black tea as a base, but again, experiment to find your own preferences. The preparations and techniques that have made classic chai so interesting have been overlooked in modern versions of the beverage. Many attempts have been made to distill these flavors into grocery concentrates for convenience of preparation. However it’s tantamount to instant coffee versus fresh brewed. The concentrates are frequently over sweetened with inexpensive corn syrup. Also the drinker has little control with regard to the overall finished flavor.
Aroma and Freshness
Any process that can be made “fresh” will preserve more complexity of flavor. Give you more tools to waken the palate. It’s painfully simple, and there’s a strong case to be made for taking the extra five minutes out of your day to make chai. If nothing else, relief from the far-too-fast pace of instant gratification. A bit of finesse is needed at a few points in the prep. Crush the spices fresh, not ahead of time, to preserve the volatile oils.
Follow my “two-stage” steeping method so that you don’t either over steep the tea or under steep the spices. This was a problem in the classic “boil it all together” method. Since the tea of the area was forgiving and generally not too complex, the harm done to the drink was minimal. Today, with such a widely varied and interesting selection of teas for you to choose from. It’s advisable to take more precautions so as to give both the spices and the tea their just due in the brewing process.
Milk and Tea
Lastly, this isn’t a place to skimp on the milk. There’s interesting flavor chemistry that happens between the butterfat of the (nonskim) milk and the tea. So the degree of creaminess in the cup is more than the sum of the milk parts added. I keep a small bottle of whole milk in the fridge just for making chai. When I want to be particularly decadent, the real cream comes out. I save the skim for my morning cereal.