Cheap Eats:
Hindi Chai
  Indian Spiced Tea

Remember saying you wouldn’t trade for all the tea in China? Well as it turns out, there is quite a lot of tea in China—715 million metric tons in 2002, as a matter of fact. But even at that large an amount, China now trails behind India, which produced more than 826 million metric tons of tea in 2002. But China still has the longest history with tea.

Camellia sinensis, otherwise known as tea, actually originated in China. Legends place its first use somewhere around 2700 BC—but interestingly, the legends are so mundane that scholars think it likely that they relate closely to the truth. The story goes that an early Chinese emperor instituted the practice of boiling drinking water to make it safe. Wherever he traveled in his realm, his servants would boil all the water that he and his entourage would need. At one point, in some small village, leaves blew into the boiling water, et voilà, tea was born.

At first, tea was viewed as being a medicine. The Chinese believed that it was good for headache, stomach ache, and a variety of other ailments. (Actually, as caffeine is the added ingredient in many extra-strength pain relievers, it’s entirely likely that tea did help some ailments.) It appears that, by around the third century a.d., tea was being consumed daily, at least in some areas, and intentional cultivation began.

By the end of the Tang dynasty (about the ninth century), tea had gained enough importance in China to be taxed. Ritual was being developed, and tea was available in varieties, including some with added spices. It was around this time, too, that the first seeds were carried to Japan. By the 13th century, tea was well established in Japan, and the refinements of the tea ceremony were taking shape.

By the 1600s, Dutch traders were carrying tea from China to Europe. The English were soon in the game, and it was the British who carried tea culture into India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Tea consumption continued to spread, and by the early 20th century, tea growing had spread to Russian Georgia, Sumatra, and Iran in Asia, Natal, Malawi, Uganda, Kenya, Congo, Tanzania, and Mozambique in Africa, Argentina, Brazil, and Peru in South America, and Queensland in Australia.

Americans are beginning to appreciate tea more, but we are still minor leaguers in this game. Tea consumption remains highest in Asia, but Russia and the UK are not far behind the Asian consumers.

Tea’s heritage is reflected in its name. Pretty much all the world’s words for tea come from the beverage’s name in two Chinese dialects: t’e and ch’a. “Chai” is just the Indian spin on ch’a. I first had milky, spiced Indian chai as a college student, but have also enjoyed it in India, sitting on a porch overlooking the Bay of Bengal. So even though I first had it in a restaurant, I now know that this delightful drink reflects an ongoing tradition. It’s warming and delicious. Enjoy.

Hindi Chai
(Indian Spiced Tea)

2 green cardamom pods

½ tsp. ground cinnamon

Generous dash or two ground cloves

1-inch piece of fresh ginger, grated or finely chopped (optional)

1 cup milk

1 cup water

1½ Tbs. sugar

2 heaping tsp. black tea or 2 tea bags

Lightly crush the cardamom pods in a mortar, to release their fragrance. Alternately, you can crush them with a rolling pin—but do it on a piece of waxed paper or plastic wrap, so it’s easy to collect. Do not completely powder the cardamom, however, as this can discolor the tea.

In a saucepan, combine the spices, milk, and water. Bring to a boil over high heat (watch the pot carefully —boiling milk boils over more quickly than just about anything else you can cook), then reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for 2 minutes. Add the sugar and tea and continue to simmer for about 1 minute longer, or until the tea has clearly released its color into the liquid.

Strain into cups and serve at once. Alternatively, you can let the strained tea cool to room temperature, then pour it over ice.

Serves 2.


You can use ground cardamom, but the green cardamom pods (available at any Indian grocer -- and there are many in Chicago and the outlying suburbs) are so much more fragrant and flavorful that, once you’ve tried them, you probably won’t be able to go back to anything else. The cardamom is, in fact, the dominant flavor in most chais—so it’s the most important ingredient to get right. If you had whole cloves, rather than ground, you cold drop one or two in the mortar with the cardamom pods, and you could use ½ tsp. ground ginger, if you don’t have fresh. Some versions of chai also add a grind or two of black pepper. This gives the beverage a little more bite—but you need to use good pepper, such as Malabar or Tellicherry, which are vividly flavored, fragrant, and hotter than what you find in the average pepper shaker.

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