With winter on its way, spicy, warming hot drinks such as chai offer the best way to put your whole spices to use. While it is not hard to find pre-made chai drinks in the supermarket, making this drink from scratch using freshly ground spices will not only add more flavour, but will also give you the full range of health benefits offered by spices in their whole form.
The best part is that once you have made your own chai blend, you are not only limited to using the blend for tea. You can also add to baked goods, your morning oats or over fruit and yogurt. These spices can easily be found in whole form at your local spice market or supermarket. Make sure that you buy them whole so that you can get the full burst of flavour.
Make Chai This Winter With Your Spice Grinder and Fresh Spices
Chai is an Indian drink that loosely translates to ‘tea’. The most popular type is masala chai, which means ‘mixed spice tea’. A blend of aromatic spices are combined with black tea (or Rooibos, for a caffeine-free version) and cooked in a pot or kettle on the stove. Spices traditionally used in this drink include green cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks, ground cloves, ground ginger and black peppercorn. With the help of a quality spice grinder, and of course, fresh spices that are prepared for grinding, you can perfect the art of chai.
Some tips to keep in mind when preparing your own chai blend include the following:
- Whole vs ground spice. It may be tempting to start with ready ground spices, but even if this seems easier and faster, it will have a major effect on the overall quality of the blend. Remember that ground spices lose a lot of their original nutrients and flavour. Many brand name spices sit in warehouses and on the shelves for long periods of time, and some have been treated with preservatives or radiation to maintain shelf life. Some brands even add flavouring to aromatic spices such as cinnamon, while others use a cheaper, lower quality spice to cut costs. Grinding your own is worth the effort, always!
- Preparing the ginger. You could use slices of fresh ginger if you are making a small batch that is enough for one or two servings of chai. Ideally, you want to be able to keep your blend at least a few days. To prepare the ginger, start by drying it out. If you have a food dehydrator, use that. Otherwise, you could try placing grated ginger on a sheet and placing it in a convection oven set at the lowest temperature for a few hours. For a more traditional method, place the ginger somewhere dry for a few days. You could also try looking for already dried ginger pieces at your spice merchant (just be sure that no sugar or preservatives have been added). Once it has dried, you can try grinding if the pieces are fine and dehydrated, or you could grate larger pieces after drying.
- Preparing the cloves. This spice is versatile and full of delicious flavour, making it suitable for a wide variety of sweet and savoury dishes. In chai, cloves add a touch of sweetness, balancing the strong ginger, sharp peppercorns, warm cinnamon and full-bodied cardamom. You can grind cloves in your spice grinder fairly easily to release even more flavour. In addition to using this spice in chai, you can grind fresh cloves over your morning oats or add to curries, stews and soups.
- Whole cinnamon vs ground. You could break up pieces of cinnamon and grind them, or place whole sticks into the chai to release the flavour more gradually. Always remember to ensure that you use pure cinnamon (preferably Ceylon, which is the best quality) rather than cassia (which is often sold as a poor quality substitute in supermarkets). Buying your spices from a dedicated spice merchant is the best way to ensure that you get the best quality spice to begin with – if buying from a supermarket, be sure to read labels carefully so that you know exactly what you are getting.
- Other spices to add. Along with these spices, black pepper and green cardamom pods, you could also add some additional spices to enhance the flavour of your chai blend. Nutmeg (grated fresh for best results), fennel seeds, star anise (add these whole for a subtle, liquorice like taste), and even more exotic options such as dried chilli flakes (use these in moderation), mace, cumin seeds and coriander seeds. Once you have the perfect base, experiment to create your own custom blend.
To put it all together, blend your spices with a scoop or two (depending on how many cups you are preparing) of tea, add a small amount of water and plenty of milk (you can also use non-dairy milk), then gently bring to the boil on the stove. Keep tasting to check whether you need to add any extra spices, tea or milk. To serve, strain over a sieve or tea strainer and enjoy!
With the help of a few good quality spice grinders, some delicious fresh spices, your favourite loose leaf tea, and plenty of milk to bring it all together, you will soon have a delicious winter-ready chai recipe that warms, soothes and entices the taste-buds.