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Bitey Chai

So I got into this chai thing fairly late into the game. It started with some tea bags the spouse got me from Numi, which is out in Oakland and whose loose leaf teas I am very fond of. Their tea bags tend to be on the weak side for me, unfortunately. It's even sadder when you consider that most of their weird, creative tea mixes only come in tea bags. I'm still bitter they stopped selling their ultra-luxe vanilla tea. It cost about $80 a pound, so I bought it on Earth Day at a discount once a year, then saved it as a pricey treat until the next. I am thinking I will never get a vanilla tea quite so flavourful and strong ever again. But anyway, that chai.

It took me trying chai at Pakwan (authentic Pakistani lunch bar served by grumpy Pakistani guys -- it's great!) to realise how inexplicably comforting chai is. The chai at their place was in a thermos at the cutlery bar. That's how no-frills Pakwan is. Go there for the unexpected experience and good food. Later, it took me a cup from The Chai Cart one afternoon to realise that good chai is comforting and awesome. If The Chai Cart shows up in your neighbourhood, I recommend it highly. Good chai is rich and creamy, with lovely, bitey ginger overlaying a comforting massala taste. Good chai, as it turned out, is seriously hard to find.

Most coffee bars in San Francisco serve some form of chai. It's usually a syrup concentrate, and depending on where you get it, can be either furiously sweet, overwhelmingly cloves or both. At that point, you might as well have straight up clove tea, guys. Atlas Cafe, once home to awesomely weird coconut-nori-tuna sandwich (they stopped adding the coconut, if I remember right, and it just wasn't the same), carries gingery-cardamom Pangea Tea, that is unsweetened and is amazing with steamed milk. This cottoned me on the idea chai doesn't have to sweet. Sweet is nice, but I've been drinking my tea neat with milk for years now, and sweet is basically a treat. What if I wanted to drink chai on a daily basis?

I also began to see a trend in the chai that I liked: strong massala presence, noticeable cardamon and lots of bite. I guess the hard part was now finding somewhere that made tea as bitey as I wanted. Enter the Tiger Chai bar on Market and Powell. Their menu is basically divvied up by how spicy you like your chai plus how sweet. They also have rice balls and Totoro stills on the walls. The original Tiger Chai hits you on the nose with black pepper (the missing bitey ingredient!) and ginger. It's great. Problem: their proprietary blends are powdered and that seriously bugs me. It was also becoming apparent that chai is trendy and also uneconomical if you drink as much tea as I do. This was why the idea of concentrate or powders wouldn't work for me. I'd use it up in the span of days.

So the challenge was to mull the massala undertones of The Chai Cart with the cardamom of Pangea and the bite of Tiger Chai. My chai is bitey. If you drink it and it does not make you go, "OW!" it is not bitey enough. Cardamom, not cloves, is the main denominator, layered in ginger and pepper. I based my massala mix on the ingredient list on The Chai Cart's spice blend (which I have a sanctified tube of that is basically sitting in my cupboard until the end of time) which turned out to be a grand idea.

To make this, you need whole spices and you need a lot of it. I'm fortunate enough to live a short hike away from the San Francisco Herb Co. They sell everything I need in 1 lbs. bags and have a hypnotic array of dried goods. Need to summon elder gods? They probably have everything you need too.

I'm sure you just went, "1 lbs. bags?!" The thing about chai is that you can either make enough for a day or basically make enough to start your own stall. True story. All in all, the spices themselves last me a bunch of months, which is great, because hauling home 10 to 15 pounds of spices sixteen blocks should ideally only be done every few months. Oh, it's great exercise, and I shouldn't be lazy, and mail-ordering spices takes up too much carbon footprint, and how else am I supposed to maintain my sedentary cat lady lifestyle? Moral of the story: Support your local bulk spice store and pet every cat you meet.

Bitey Chai

Stuff A:

2 tbs. black pepper
2 tbs. white pepper
2 tbs. fennel seeds
2 tbs. cardamom seeds (stronger and easier) or cardamom pods (more authentic)
1 tbs. cloves

Stuff B:

4-5 liters water
12 tsp. black tea leaves
½ tsp. ground nutmeg
2 tbs. dried ginger
4 pcs. allspice
4 sticks cinnamon


1. Heat up Stuff A in a pan until it becomes fragrant. Watch the pan carefully so spices do not burn.
2. Pour Stuff A into a paper or plastic ziploc bag. Roughly grind with a rolling pin. It doesn't have to be powdered, just mostly cracked to help release the flavour.
3. Return Stuff A to a large pot (I use a stock pot to heat up the spices then pour it back in after I grind it).
4. Add Stuff B to pot.
5. Bring to a rolling boil and let boil for 5 minutes.
6. Steep for 48 hours. You'll want to bring the tea back to boiling every 24 hours so it doesn't go bad. I discovered the hard way that you can skunk tea, even though there should technically be nothing in it that ferments. Don't make the mistake I did.
7. Strain and store in bottles in the fridge until ready for use.
8. To prepare individual cups, use a ratio of ½ cup tea to ½ milk. Reheat in microwave to desired warmth.

I've found that it takes at least 2 days of steeping for the full bitey flavour of the ginger and peppers to come through. It also rounds out the massala undertones. Incidentally, you can use powdered spices if you like, but it results in a lot of powdery goop at the bottom of the bottles. I've tried using that to make massala syrup, among other things, but it seems to me otherwise a lot of waste. I mean, you could use filter paper and wait forever, but that's really hitting too much work. The only reason I use ground nutmeg is because shaving nutmeg is inconvenient. Might as well get a small jar of it ground. It'll last a very long time, because really, you almost never use nutmeg in anything.

The prepared bottles store well in the fridge. I don't bother with sterilising bottles beforehand, but I do use up all the tea within one or two weeks.


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