On a blustery day back in early December, a friend and I went into the hills for a lecture on masala chai (literally, spice tea) at the Berkeley Botanical Gardens. While chai may seem fairly self-explanatory, I was intrigued because the lecture included a tasting of a few different kinds of chai, information about its history and, most importantly, a chance for us to see the many spices that go into chai in their plant form. 
As it turned out, there were lots of interesting things to be discovered. For example, did you know that you can test the freshness of your cloves by placing them in a glass of water? If they float vertically, they’re fresh, but if they rest horizontally, they’re past their prime. And did you know that turmeric, in addition to being one of the worst things you could ever get on your clothes, can curdle milk? While I, as a person who often gets carsick, have always known that ginger helps to fight motion sickness, I never knew that turmeric helped with arthritis, that star anise was used to fight the bird flu and that the leaves of the cardamom tree could alleviate depression. In general, it was like “Chai 101” and things got even more interesting once we turned to the chai tasting.

For some reason, I had always assumed that chai had a long history in India (perhaps I should thank Starbucks, that modern mythmaker, for this), but it seems that it came into existence only in the early 20th century when the British tea merchants wanted to increase black tea consumption in India. It was supposed to be served the traditional British way, too–only with milk and sugar–but Indian tea vendors had ideas of their own and started adding spices to it. It quickly became popular, so popular that, as the instructor was careful to point out to us (i.e.  a crowd of recipe-loving Americans), there is no one correct way to make it. She said that each Indian family had their own recipe, that chai was an entirely personal thing; some sprinkle turmeric on top, or some use fresh ginger, while others prefer dry. Even milk isn’t necessary. That day we tried it several different ways–sweetened and unsweetened, with almond milk and without. I can’t say that I preferred one way to another; I tend to like spicy and milky drinks (I confess that I am not always immune to the charm of the Chai or the Matcha Latte; I am an all-embracing tea drinker) with a hint of sweetness. But there was one type of chai that the instructor mentioned to us that we didn’t get to sample that day, which sounded even more like “my cup of tea” than the others: Kashmiri Chai. She said that she discovered this type of chai–it’s made with green tea, cardamom, saffron and cinnamon and is sprinkled with ground almonds–when she and her husband had gone to Indonesia for their honeymoon. 
I was reminded of this drink this past weekend when I woke up on Saturday morning feeling like something had become unhinged in my nasal passages. Truth be told, given the pace of the past few weeks–the interview I did in San Francisco for the jam blog, the many hours spent tutoring and dancing at a Serbian-Swedish wedding extravaganza and the handful of nights when I just didn’t sleep as well as I would have likeda cold was inevitable. Although these things are never pleasant, rather than fight it like I usually do, this time I decided just to give in, to really settle in, to this cold and to just sit. I hadn’t been sitting as much as I would have liked recently and, not only my body, but also my mood and general being, have been enjoying it. It becomes doubly restorative when you have a hot glass of a smooth, spicy and fragrant chai in one hand, a little beagle resting next to you and a stack of books ready for your perusal. Clearly, there are some perks to being sick.

But sick or not, this is a really wonderful and unique drink, especially in the dead of winter. I love the way the depth of flavor provided by the saffron, cardamom and cinnamon contrasts with the earthy and grassy quality of the green tea and also how the ground almonds sprinkled on top add a hint of creaminess.

 Kashmiri Chai

serves one, plus a little extra
adapted from The Telegraph

When I got home from the chai talk, I immediately did a search for Kashmiri Chai; I wanted to know more. It turns out, however, that just like with regular masala chai, there is no one way to make this. The recipe that most appealed to me was featured in  The Telegraph, but I also fiddled with it and there are many other ways to go, too. Some online recipes call for sprinkling ground pistachios instead of almonds; others suggest almond milk (if you’re into making nut milks, pistachio could work, too) instead of ground nuts. You could also sweeten yours with honey, granulated sugar, or, as I did, the more molasses-like natural cane sugar. Black tea is also an option if you like it more than green. The point is that you should feel free to play with this recipe: make it your own, flavor it with spices that appeal to you. That’s really half the fun.
       The one word of advice I would give you is this: if you use green tea, don’t steep it for longer than a minute or two because, if you do it, it will become unbearably bitter. One of the most important things I learned during my year in Japan was that green tea should be steeped for only a short period of time (extremely hot water or bad tea leaves can also contribute to this bitter taste).
         Also, feel free to double, triple, quadruple the recipe, as well as to dry out and reuse your spices in future cups of chai.

1 1/2 cups water
3 cardamom pods, crushed
1 cinnamon stick
a pinch (3-5 threads) saffron
1 teaspoon natural cane sugar
1 teaspoon green tea leaves (Sencha is nice or even Oolong)
1 teaspoon ground or roughly crushed almonds, for serving

-In a small saucepan, add the water, spices and sugar and bring to a boil.
-Let boil for 10 minutes or until the air is fragrant.
-Turn off the heat and add the tea leaves. Let steep for 1-2 minutes and then pour into a cup using a strainer.
-Top with the ground almonds and enjoy!

8 thoughts on “Settling In

  1. Ah, how perfectly perfectly lovely. I have always loved chai too, and this sounds like a super delicious and fascinating afternoon. I realize that I sound like a broken record in every single comment, but I cannot help but repeat my undying refrain: I miss you! I miss you! I miss you!

  2. Oh my God! Was it you and the Greek I had the great pleasure of sharing a car with on the way home from Josefinas wedding? She just called you “Kate and Costas” and I didn´t put two and two together until now after reading about the wedding on your blog! I read your posts – and Cameron´s – all the time, and now I think it is SO nice to have actually met you, even though I didn´t know it at the time 🙂 Anyway, thank you for a very fun och enjoyable ride home from Moraga! Marie (Josefina´s mother)

  3. A chai class sounds wonderful, as does your recipe above! Turmeric is sort of the magic cure-all in Ayurveda, at least according to the book I have on the topic. I have adopted it for some medical uses with success — and I love the idea of adding it to chai. My first chai was made for me by my Nepalese math professor in college — it was definitely creamy with lots of complex spices, but now I see that the chai world has endless possibilities! Yum. Thank you!

  4. You don't sound like a broken record at all and I hope this chai makes into your pregnancy diet (although I guess you're off caffeine!! How are you managing? I've always associated you with the sound of a coffee bean grinder and the heavenly smell of freshly brewed coffee)…Maybe the caffeine-free version? And I miss you too, friend. Hope you're feeling better!

  5. Hello Marie! Yes, it was me and the Greek (the infamous!). We also very much enjoyed the ride home–so many interesting stories were shared :)–not to mention the pleasure of finally getting to meet Josefina's mother and sister (you are also famous in Berkeley Slavic circles; full disclosure: I've visited your blog too, but the language barrier keeps me from understanding). I hope you enjoyed the rest of your stay in Berkeley and had a good and safe return to Sweden. I think you got the last of the good Berkeley winter weather; it's now cold and rainy. Perhaps you should return and bring some sunshine with you? Best wishes, Katy

  6. The Botanical Garden at the UC offers a lot of interesting classes; Camm and I went to this one and a few years ago they had one on the Japanese tea ceremony (it was interesting seeing how this was presented to the American audience since I've been to a few of these in Japan) that we also went to. Neither disappointed! And, given your interest in Ayurveda, I think you would probably enjoy them, too!

    I hope that this inspires you to revisit chai (how exciting that your first chai was an authentic and personal one; I'm sure mine came from a cafe–maybe even from Starbucks! I'm also impressed that you studied math in college!) and to play around with its possibilities (as both a drink and a baked good)! 🙂 I could certainly go for a cup today…if only I were working from home on this dreary, dreary day!

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