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The hot flavour this summer is chai. It rhymes with why. There are chai shakes, chocolate chai, non-fat chai, and chai hot drinks. Ben & Jerry’s even has a chai flavoured kind of ice cream it calls a smoothie. What is this thing called chai? It’s tea, laddies, just tea.

Well not just, of course. That wouldn’t justify the hype and the extra couple of dollars or so per cup that go with it.

The chai fad began on the USA’s north-west coast, the land of lattés and over-priced espressos. Like its limpid liquid cousins, it has now moved east, bubbling over with hype. Chai is lauded as healthful and invigorating. Internet purveyors cite enough anecdotes to its wonders to make this drink seem like the caffinated equivalent of the fountain of youth. Tea sellers claim that their chai blends are more aromatic, more authentic than their competitors. Sites vie for colourful descriptions of how the first cuppa was produced. My favourite starts with a horrific tale of how tea leaves were originally created from the eyelids of a Zen master who slit them trying to stay awake. This is supposed to make me want to click on and buy the stuff?

Despite its exotic robes, chai is nothing more than what most of us get when we order a cup of “Indian tea” in an Indian restaurant. It’s made from an aromatic mixture of spices, tea leaves and milk. Chai, in fact, is a common word in several languages for tea. Where it is commonly drunk—South Asia, China, and Russia—it is as exotic as hot water.

So here we are, gullible North Americans, seeking a sip of the “richly flavorful, good for your health” beverage that only the Masala Chai master can bring.

There is no mystery to chai and there are an infinite number of recipes. Rather than looking for a secret blend, consider the components and match the flavours you like best. Start with a good black tea (although Kashmiris use green tea for a similar drink called kahva) ) and brew it as you normally would, with the addition of your own spice blend. Use whole spices, not powders.

A flavourful mixture might consist of a few of the following: a couple of cardamom seeds, an inch or so of cinnamon bark, a clove, a little freshly grated ginger, maybe a crushed almond or a pinch of saffron, and even whole black pepper. Put the tea in a pot and add boiling water. Stir everything once or twice and then let it sit, off the heat but covered, until the tea is the strength you prefer. Strain it, add milk and a sweetener to taste.

© Barry Lazar 2000 Email Flavourguy

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