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Looseleaf Chai Tea

April 8, 2013

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I think the best recipes are ones that don’t require strict measurement, where the taste is a bit different each time and that difference is part of the pleasure. That probably holds most true for my recipe for looseleaf chai tea. We go through this tea quickly, and as a result we make it frequently, savoring the slight variation from week to week.

This tea is a great alternative to coffee and drink it in the mornings and sometimes again later in the day. It is caffeinated, as the base is black. But of course black tea is not as heavily caffeinated as coffee, and mixing it with spices reduces the load per cup even further. To make your first batch, start by blending together the following ingredients:

  • 1 1/4 cups looseleaf assam tea
  • 3 tablespoons cinnamon chips (if you can’t find chips, soak cinnamon sticks in water for a few minutes and then tear them into bits)
  • 10 star anise, broken into individual lobes
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
  • 1 teaspoon dried minced ginger
  • 2 tablespoons cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon cardamom
  • 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
  • 1 teaspoon white peppercorns

You can — and should — modify these proportions to taste! The measurements certainly don’t have to be precise; I usually use my hands instead of teaspoons and go by the look of the mix more than anything. Happily, if you find you are running short on one ingredient, you can in some cases do a bit of substitution. For example, both the cloves and the cardamom are sweet and spicy at the same time; if you don’t have enough of one, amp up the other. The same goes for the anise and the fennel seed; chopped dried licorice root can also be used in a pinch, although it is sweeter.

To blend, just put the ingredients together in some sort of tin and shake to combine. No, the blending will never be perfect. In theory one cup could be a bit more gingery or peppery than another; in practice, though, I can’t say that I’ve had this problem. I do recommend against using a glass jar to store your tea, since tea leaves degrades with light. Once you have prepared your blend, you can draw on it to make yourself cup after cup:

  • Position a tea strainer in a mug
  • Scoop in 1-2 tablespoons of the chai blend
  • Add boiling water
  • Let steep for 3-4 minutes (longer steeping equals stronger taste but also higher caffeine levels)
  • Stir in honey and then add a splash of milk

My go-to tea strainer is the same standard gold-mesh affair that you can find nearly everywhere. If you’re making your tea to go, however, this travel mug with a built-in strainer from T2 Tea is unbeatable. I know that sourcing these ingredients might be challenging, so a few notes on where to acquire:

  • MarketSpice. You can get all of these ingredients from MarketSpice, a fantastic and spice store in the historic Pike Place Market in Seattle. Buying online is easy at www.marketspice.com.
  • Indian grocery stores. I’ve found good prices on anise, cardomom, and fennel at an Indian grocery store here in Cambridge called Shalimar.
  • Natural food stores. Our local coop – Harvest, also in Cambridge – stocks most of these ingredients. Whole Foods stocks a few, but at prices so high that you can’t really buy them in the quantities you need.

Of course, there are lots of other sources for tea and for spices. This list is by no means exhaustive.

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