Six years ago, we were new in town and in need of a strong cup of chai, the kind they served at the Boulder Dushanbe Tea House where we used to frequent before moving to the Northampton area. Sure we had access to ready made to the ready made tea in our new home, but mostly we found it came from a carton in the coffee/tea shops instead of a large pot of loose simmering spices steeped in milk then tea.
So I did what I could. Instead of packing our bags and moving west, I staked out a local Asian market to supply my curry and chai spices along with coconuts, ginger, rice, and mochi. At the time, the market was housed in a wood shack-style on the edge of town, just over the bridge. Not only could you walk out with a heaving bag of basmati rice, you could also stock up on porn. It was a novel and popular business model while it lasted. It’s groceries only now.
I can’t speak to their once popular porn section of the store, but I can tell you they helped me on more than one occasion tweak a recipe to perfection with the suggestion of a new tea blend or a hidden spice.
I stood in the tea section where the woman who runs the market approached me.
“What you making,” she said.
“Chai tea,” I said “but I can’t seem to find Assam or Darjeeling.”
“No, you don’t need those. You know this tea, Red Label, this is what you need. Same tea they use at India House. The owner, she shops here. Come with me.”
“You need ginger. Fresh ginger. Black Peppercorns. Cardamom pods. You have cardamom, cloves?”
She handed me each ingredient as we went down each aisle in the store.
“Oh, and last ingredient. You need, star anise.”
“Is it strong, I don’t really like the taste.”
“Trust me, try it, okay. Same tea at India House. Steep the spices with milk, water, and sugar then add the tea.”
She punched in the numbers on old cash register then handed me the receipt.
“Thanks,” I said.
I’ve changed the recipe a little since, but she was right about the star anise.
It’s a keeper.
Yield 4 servings
2 1/4 cups water
2 1/4 cups organic milk (whole cow, almond, or soy)
1/4 cup organic dark brown sugar (or more to taste)
2 cinnamon sticks
16 cardamom pods (crushed; place them in a small bag and gently crush them with a rolling pin)
1 star anise clove
1 teaspoon whole cloves
2-inch piece fresh ginger (sliced thin)
1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
2 tablespoons black or green tea leaves (I like to use 2 parts Darjeeling to 1 part Assam; or try Japanese Sencha Tea)
Combine the first 9 ingredients (everything except the tea) in a 6-quart pot and bring to a boil.
Remove from heat, cover and let mixture steep for 30 minutes. Return to a simmer. Remove from heat and stir in the black or green tea leaves. Cover and let stand for 2 minutes.
Place a sieve over a pitcher or jar. Pour hot tea into the sieve to strain. Serve tea immediately, or let cool and serve iced.
(This recipe is inspired by “Chai” found in The Joy of Cooking).