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The perfect chai: eschew powdered spices

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Chai, the de facto national drink of India, is such a breeze to concoct that an instant version is superfluous at best, a superfluous abomination at worst.

A colonial concatenation of British milk tea and Indian spice, chai has gone global over the past 20 years or so in the usual orgy of imitation and debasement. Supermarkets and gourmet shops teem with "chai-flavored" products: drink powder, concentrate, syrup, ice cream, chocolate, caramel, shortbread, scone mix, oatmeal. In the ultimate mark of crossover success—of Lender's-esque mainstream arrival—chai now comes in a Lipton tea bag. Care for cream with your watery insult to a great beverage? Look no further than Coffee-mate's "Vanilla Chai Spice" nondairy creamer.

In the Triangle, ground zero for quality chai is Chatham Square in Cary. The house chai at Udupi Cafe (590 E. Chatham St., No. 112, 465-0898, sriudupi.com) sets the standard with its intricate and assertive bouquet. Ginger and cardamom revolve about the central note of orange pekoe tea in what seems like viscous slow motion. An optional spoonful of sugar lends a certain festoon to the thick and loamy underpinning.

Nearby eateries like Cool Breeze (740 E. Chatham St., 463-9130, coolbreeze-cary.com) and Mithai House of Indian Desserts (744-F E. Chatham St., 469-9651, mithaius.com) likewise serve excellent chai, as well as an array of chai-appropriate snacks.

In Americanized Indian restaurants, chai is an optional digestif on the model of Western tea and coffee. In India, chai is all but mother's milk.

"Chai is best described as ubiquitous," says John Caldwell, who teaches Hindi and Urdu at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and co-hosts the popular radio program Geet Bazaar on WKNC-FM 88.1 at N.C. State. "It is partaken of at every possible opportunity: morning upon awakening ('bed tea'), after each meal, with snacks at any time of day, and just before retiring for the evening. If you are a guest at someone's home (invited or otherwise), you will be given chai, many times. It is considered the height of rudeness not to offer chai to a guest. Everyone drinks it, even children."

The word "chai" derives from "cha," the Chinese word for tea. What Americans call chai, according to Caldwell, is actually "masala chai" (tea flavored with cardamom, clove and other spices), which is consumed "as a matter of course" only in the western Indian coast states of Gujarat and Maharashtra. Elsewhere, plain tea with milk and sugar is the rule.

Tea is indigenous to India, but it was the British who initiated a native tea industry during the 1830s. By the turn of the century, India had eclipsed China as Britain's chief supplier of tea, but Indians themselves did not drink much of the costly and esoteric beverage. As Lizzie Collingham explains in Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, British merchants "woke up to the fact that their largest market was sitting right on their doorstep" and, beginning in 1901, undertook an aggressive—literally door-to-door—marketing campaign. By the 1930s, the British had transformed tea into a mainstay of Indian homes, shops, trains and factories.

The British attempted to instill the "proper" way to make tea, but Indians paid no attention, adding copious amounts of milk and sugar and flavoring the tea in what Collingham calls "a variety of thoroughly un-British ways." This thick, sweet, sometimes spicy mixture particularly appealed to northern Indians who were accustomed to buttermilk and the yogurt drink called lassi. Northerners remain to this day India's most devoted tea drinkers. Caldwell explains that "in the North you won't find coffee outside the larger hotels."


Udupi's Chai Recipe

a little less than 1/2 cup of water
1 heaping tablespoon ginger root, finely minced (not powdered)
1/2 gallon whole milk
1/4 teaspoon cardamom, freshly ground
6 tablespoons Brooke Bond Red Label Tea (orange pekoe), loose, not bagged
4 tablespoons sugar, or to taste

Bring the water to a full boil and add the minced ginger. Boil for two minutes.

Add the milk and boil for 15 minutes, stirring to prevent burning.

Add the cardamom and tea. Boil for 5 minutes, or until the chai becomes thick and rich.

Add sugar to taste. Strain and serve hot.

Notes:

For a lighter and healthier chai, substitute low-fat or skim milk. To imitate the thicker mouthfeel of whole milk, boil the milk for 30 minutes instead of 15. The result is admittedly less sumptuous and texturally interesting, but the flavor remains intact, and one can drink large thermoses of the stuff without worrying about one's arteries or waistline.

Brooke Bond Red Label Tea can be purchased at Triangle Indian Market in Chatham Square, around the corner from Udupi.

Orange pekoe encompasses a range of black teas grown in Sri Lanka and India. Experiment with other black teas like Assam and Darjeeling, or even with flavored teas (chocolate seems to me promising). Those prone to 3 a.m. examinations of the ceiling might try Twinings caffeine-free English Breakfast Tea. I recommend 5 or 6 tea bags per half gallon of milk.

Experiment, as well, with spice variations. Black peppercorn, clove, fennel seed and cinnamon stick are common additives, while honey (say 4 tablespoons) can substitute for sugar.

The Udupi kitchen staff insists that freshly ground cardamom and freshly minced ginger root are the crucial components of their extravagantly fragrant chai. Cardamom pods are easily ground in a coffee or spice grinder. Eschew the shortcut of powdered spices.


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