Chai pours into sipping shops as the new cutting-edge drink

Tea: The spicy sweet mix has been enjoyed in India for hundreds of years.

July 11, 1999|By Jane Snow | Jane Snow,Knight Ridder/Tribune

Last summer, the sophisticates were sipping iced cappuccino. This summer, it's chai.

The cool, sweet drink of the moment is actually ancient.

In its hot form, chai has been served in India for centuries; street-corner vendors still sell reservoirs of it daily.

Chai (it rhymes with "pie") is black tea simmered with spices, sweetened with sugar or honey and lightened with milk. American espresso shops, after exhausting the list of Italian and French coffee drinks, latched onto chai and added it to their menus.

They discovered that when the sweet, spiced tea is cooled down and served with ice, it becomes a mellow summer cooler.

Espresso shops from coast to coast now sell chai, and tea companies have begun putting tea and spices in bags for folks to brew at home.

The commercial brands are expensive, though, and making homemade chai is easy. The hardest part is deciding which blend of spices to use.

In India, the spices that go into chai range from cinnamon and cardamom to vanilla and black pepper. Everyone has favorite blends that vary with taste, mood and time of day. The constants are milk, tea and sugar.

Chai is made by boiling regular tea (not green tea) with the spices for several minutes, then steeping it for several minutes. Then the tea is strained to remove the spices, and a sweetener is added.

Some recipes call for boiling the milk along with the tea and spices, while others suggest adding the milk at the end of simmering -- just enough to heat it before steeping. Either method works.

Although loose tea is used in authentic Indian recipes, tea bags work fine and are more convenient. Darjeeling is a good choice.

In my spice mixture, I use vanilla, cinnamon, ginger and bay leaves. I like the soft flavors this combination imparts. Try it, then experiment on your own. Peppercorns, fennel seeds, cloves, cardamom seeds and nutmeg are other popular chai spices.

Iced Chai

Makes 1 quart

7 cups water

3 Darjeeling tea bags

4 thin slices fresh ginger

1 vanilla bean, cut in 1-inch pieces

1 cinnamon stick

2 bay leaves

1 cup milk

6 tablespoons honey

Bring water to a boil in a saucepan. Add tea, ginger, vanilla, cinnamon and bay leaves.

Simmer for 5 minutes, adding milk near the end of the simmering time. Stir in honey. Remove from heat, cover and steep for 3 minutes. Strain through a sieve to remove spices.

Chill. Serve over ice.

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