Chai Chai Chai

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When Jonji and I travelled to India in 2013, we landed in New Delhi and boarded a train to Haridwar, where we planned to stay at the Ashram affiliated with Jonji’s old school. The landscape trundled by as the train sped through the city and out into the early morning landscape, soporific pink fog hovering over green fields and quiet, solitary buildings. Tents, piles of cow patties burning to keep people warm, rooting pigs, and groves of trees popped up along the train tracks—there and then gone again. And all the while, calls of, “Chai-coffeeee, chai-coffeeee,” came from men walking up and down the train, selling their warm beverages in small paper cups.

Each morning at the ashram began with a metal cup full of sweet brown chai cupped between cold hands; a welcome source of warmth on those misty mornings, which seemed to seep into our bones and freeze us from the inside out (Jonji and I also spent many hours of the day sitting outside in sleeping bags, looking like giant slugs). If I could, I would go back for a second cup, savoring the sweet and spicy tea as the mist slowly lifted off the land.

Besides our visit to India, my only other experience with chai has been during my mom’s Open Studios season. Autumn is a busy time for our family, whether it’s assisting my mom with sewing her Ribbon Street products (me, when I was still living at home), gardening like a madman (Dad), rolling and stamping what felt like thousands of tiny ginger cookies (everyone), or spending long days in the studio poring over sewing machines and piles of pinned bits of fabric (Mom). Two weekends in October, the backyard turns into an open air shop, strung with lines of triangular flags and hung with bags large and small. A small table near the back hosts a plate stacked high with the aforementioned ginger cookies, a bucket of mugs painted in primary colors, a bowl mounded high with whipped cream resting in a bowl of ice, and a large carafe of homemade chai. Customers come back every year for the wonderful Ribbon Street products, but they also make the return trip for the cookies and chai. I don’t blame them—chai is such a treat to sip on as the air is turning cool, and the specter of winter looms.

Of course, chai can (and should) be enjoyed year round; it’s especially good topped with lightly sweetened whipped cream, which melts into a sweet foam on top. It’s hard to have just one cup! The dragon Smaug comes out in my mom when it comes to her apricot jam—for my dad, it’s this chai. He jealously guards their supply, and drinks several cups a day when they have it. So if you’re ever at their house when they have chai to share, watch out—my dad might just start roaring and snapping if you take too much.

Note: my mom has always called this “Chai Chai Chai” because her friend, who brought her the recipe from India, told her the people selling chai always called it out that way; it was never just, “chai.” It’s fitting, because the excitement of getting to drink this tea cannot be contained in just one syllable. Chai, Chai, Chai!

Chai Chai Chai

makes 1 gallon

8 cups water
80g (9 tbsp) chai spice*
100g (8 tbsp) loose-leaf black tea** (we use half Assam Golden Tip and half Rooibos)
85g (⅓–½ cup) granulated sugar
8 cups whole milk

freshly whipped cream, to serve

*You can certainly create your own chai spice mix, but we love the pre-mixed version from Wild Roots in Felton, CA, or the Chai Masala from Oaktown Spice
**Use all black tea or a combination, like we do. Feel free to play with different kinds of black tea to find the one you like best. Note that Rooibos is decaf, which is nice to use because you can drink it later in the day and not get wired.

Fill a large pot with 8 cups water and place over medium-high heat. When the water boils, stir in 80g chai spice. Wait one minute, then stir in 100g loose-leaf black tea and 85g sugar. Wait one minute again, then pour in 8 cups whole milk and stir to combine.

Once the mixture comes to a boil, let the chai boil up as high as it will go on high heat, then turn the heat off and let the liquid fall back to the bottom of the pot. Repeat this up and down process another 5-7 times (this is the magic and most important step of the method, as it caramelizes the milk and adds a rich depth of flavor), until the bubbles are no longer foam-like but larger, uniform, and more open. Note that the chai will boil up much more quickly the first couple of times, so watch the pot very carefully! The boiling will slow down as the milk becomes caramelized.

Take the pot off the heat and cover with a lid for two minutes. Strain your chai and decant into a thermos, or enjoy immediately, ladled into mugs and top with freshly whipped cream. Enjoy!

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