Real Chai Made to Order

It has been dark and cold and rainy here lately.  In other words, it has been perfect. 

And when it is perfectly dark and perfectly cold and perfectly rainy, what's the best thing to do? Make a hot beverage and curl up with a good book.

So I turned to David Tanis, whom I adore, and I made my own chai. Come with me on a journey far, far away, will you? A journey to the exotic land of Eugene, Oregon circa 1997.

I was a 22-year-old graduate student on a vacation to see a dear friend whom I had met while abroad. She was (is!) funny, urbane, and left-coast. She looked like Rachel from Friends. At a time when everyone wanted to look like Rachel from Friends. (Let's face it: we all still  want to look like Rachel from Friends.) She could drink a pint and she could dance well into the early morning. She was game for adventures at Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland, and she dragged my tipsy butt home from bars in Edinburgh. She hiked with me through bogs in Connemara (and we complained the whole way through) and she indulged my unrequited crush on a German exchange student whose name I never knew. She was perfect, and when we returned from our time abroad, she meandered back to Oregon, and I landed in Salt Lake City.  Enter summer road trip to Oregon. 


I had never been to Eugene or Portland or Florence or Corvalis. All places she took me in a whirlwind tour. And while I remember playing basketball in the Portland moonlight as we waited for our dinner reservation and hiking up the Columbia River Gorge to see rainforests and waterfalls, I also remember our trip to some unnamed strip mall kiosk, where she said, "I think you'll like this." For, you see, I was an indefatigable tea drinker in Ireland. From morning to night, with or without milk and sugar, I could suck down a cuppa. And she presented to me my very first cup of chai. 

Remember: this was the mid-to-late 90s. The company Oregon Chai had been founded in 1991, but took three years to come up with its flavor profile. By 1997, masala chai could be found at every Northwest neighborhood coffee shop but had only offered its tendrils into the Wasatch Mountain Range market. We may thank (or curse, your choice) Starbucks for the introduction of this fabulous beverage to world-naive young adults. I was one of them. 

And so I ended up at some kiosk with my darling friend and she offered the drink, certain of my affinity for it without questioning. I was Alice in this Northwest wonderland, and she was saying, "Here drink this." And I did. 

And I was ruined.

Nowadays, I am particular about my Masala Chai. Not too sweet. Definitely heavy on the cardamom, please. (In fact, one of my favorite chais can be found at the Goodlife Cafe and Bakery in Mendocino (oh, that heady and floral note of cardamom!)). I prefer my chai hot in a good earthenware mug on a cold and rainy day, but I will take it even iced on a sweltering day if need be.  

But David Tanis taught me a little secret. It's so much better if you make it yourself. This recipe has all the expected flavors--cinnamon, cardamom, cloves. But it's the toasted quality that knocks this little drink well out of the realm of any kiosk, cornerstore, favorite coffee shop, or big chain bakery. This is the way to have chai. This is the made-to-order chai that I have been aching for ever since that fateful 1997 day. And I can make it in my own kitchen. 

And I am deeply indebted to this dear friend of mine. For chai is, indeed, a great pleasure of my life, especially on a perfectly rainy day.


Real Chai Made to Order

Adapted From David Tanis' One Good Dish

2 Servings

½ tsp fennel or anise seeds
4 green cardamom pods
6 whole cloves
1-inch piece of cinnamon stick
½ tsp black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
2 cups milk
1 Tbsp black tea leaves (Assam or Ceylon)
Sugar, brown sugar, or honey

1.  Lightly toast the fennel seeds, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, peppercorns, and bay leaf in a small dry pan over medium-high heat just until fragrant, about 1 minute.

2.  Crush the spices in a spice mill or with a mortar and pestle. Then transfer the spices t a stainless steel saucepan. Add the ginger and pour int he milk. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook for 2 minutes. Add the the leaves. Turn off the heat, cover the pot and let steep for at least 5 minutes

3. Strain the chai into warmed cups and sweeten to taste.


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