When I moved to New York City almost fifteen years ago, a friend took me on a downtown tour of inexpensive places to fill my belly. One stop was the Lahore Deli, a Pakistani joint on the edge of Soho where for four dollars I could have a little box of rice, dal and veggies plus a hot cup of sweet milky chai. The chai's share of that bill was one dollar; these days it's a buck fifty.
It was there, inside Lahore Deli, where my love for chai blossomed and as I made my way farther afield in the city, I scouted out other places for great chai, but I never found one that matches Lahore's and so when the craving comes — and it comes almost daily — I either meander over to Crosby Street, or I make my own.
Chai literally means tea to much of the world, but most English speakers think of chai as the spiced tea drink Masala Chai. So yes, technically Chai Tea means "tea tea."
There are two ways to do this: throw just about everything in a pot of water and simmer, then add the milk, tea and sweetener and brew for a few minutes; or, let the spices soak overnight in the water then simmer in the morning with your tea leaves and milk. For tea leaves, use Assam or Ceylon tea if you're a purist. English Breakfast will also do. I use loose PG Tips tea.
Play around with the flavors. More cardamom if you're a fan, for example. The fellows at the deli tell me it's a sin to combine the ginger with the milk, but I like the extra dimension of heat it adds. Find your own formula. Once you hit it, you'll know.
3/4 cup water
2-4 whole green cardamom pods, smashed
1-2 thin slices fresh ginger
1 1-inch cinnamon stick
1 piece star anise
3/4 cup milk
1 1/2 teaspoons loose black tea leaves
Sweetener, to taste (I prefer honey or maple syrup)
In a small saucepan, combine the water, cardamom, ginger, cinnamon stick and star anise. Bring the mixture to a boil then lower the heat and simmer for a few minutes until the mixture is fragrant. Add the milk and tea leaves, and simmer for another minute then turn off the heat and let steep for 2 minutes. Pour into a cup through a fine mesh sieve. Discard the leaves and spices. Add sweetener, to taste.
If you want deeply flavorful tea in the morning, follow these alternate directions starting the night before.
In a small saucepan, combine the water, cardamom, cinnamon stick and star anise. Do not add the ginger yet. Bring to a boil then turn it off and cover the pan. In the morning, add the sliced ginger and bring to a boil then lower the heat and simmer for a few minutes until the mixture is fragrant. Add the milk and tea leaves, and simmer for another minute then turn off the heat and let steep for 2 minutes. Pour into a cup through a fine mesh sieve. Discard the tea and spices. Add sweetener, to taste.
Related: Recipe Review: Saveur's Bourbon Chai
(images: Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan)