Kate Gibbs

Chai tea.
Masala chai ... black tea, spices and milk. Photo: Natalie Boog

An order of “chai tea” basically spells out “tea tea” in Hindi. A blend of black or green tea and spices, chai is drunk throughout parts of Asia and the Middle East as commonly as English breakfast tea is here.

The drink we know as chai or chai latte is often a variation on the Indian masala chai, a concoction of black tea spiced with an assortment of dried ginger, cloves, cardamom, star anise and cinnamon, all steeped in hot milk. Baristas say the drink is fast becoming one of our favourite cafe orders, particularly with the health conscious and pregnant women because of the lower caffeine levels and the perceived health benefits of the various spices.

“Chai tea is made to be drunk with milk and a little honey . . . it's what we often call a chai latte,” says barista Zachary Gray, who produces chai blends for Single Origin Roasters.

Chai tea has become chai latte in Australia.
Growing in popularity ... Chai tea has morphed into chai latte in Australia. Photo: Melanie Dove

Chef Adam D'Sylva from Melbourne's Tonka restaurant says chai varies wildly in India and locally. He makes it according to his Indian grandmother's recipe, using Darjeeling tea, allspice, cinnamon and cow's milk. “Chai differs for each family,” D'Sylva says. “My father's mother made it like this when I was young. All the ingredients are simmered together in a pot, then strained off. The smell takes me back to my childhood. It's the cinnamon, which we used a lot in lamb curries and biryani, a rice dish like pilaf, and chai.”

A variation on this is also drunk in Afghanistan, where black tea spiked with cardamom is often consumed with breakfast and afternoon tea. Milk and sugar are often added, but both are optional. Chef Haseeb Miazad from Bamiyan in Sydney's Five Dock says the more uncommon type “qaimaq chai” uses green tea. It is a special occasion drink made for weddings and large celebrations.

“You boil the green tea for a long time, until the water reduced by half. Then we put bicarb soda in to change the tea colour from green to red,” he said.

“When you put the milk in it becomes a pink colour. We put the cardamom in then too. At the end we put fresh cream on the top.”

Regular interpretations of chai in cafes and supermarkets (see product guide below) use everything from green to black to rooibos tea, with flavour variations ranging from black pepper to more contemporary inclusions such as vanilla. Another modern tilt is chocolate chai, often made with artificial chocolate flavour, but also cocoa nibs or curls of chocolate, which melt in a hot milk infusion.

Barista and manager at Dukes Coffee Roasters in Windsor, Melbourne, Shri Bhatwandas, recommends avoiding powdered chai, an artificial blend of flavours, overdried spices and sugar. “You can see it on chai connoisseurs' faces if they drink it, it's really not a good option. Natural is so much better.”

Bhatwandas says the cafe has been serving chai for four years and “it's never been as popular as it is now. The amount of chai we get through is amazing”. He says it's the healthy alternative to coffee for a lot of people. Bhatwandas only serves chai with soy milk in his cafe. He argues its nutty flavour is better suited to the drink than cow's milk.

Gray errs towards loose-leaf chai instead of teabags, and black tea instead of green.

“Black tea stands up to the strength of the spices and offers a balanced flavour. You need something robust to support the spice,” he says. “I enjoy the delicate flavours of green tea and I don't want to throw those intense spices in there and destroy that.”

Owner of The Little Marionette coffee roasters in Sydney, Ed Cutcliffe, has tweaked the traditional brewing method for modern tastes.

“After seven or eight minutes' brewing, black tea turns stringent on the back of the tongue,” he said.

“It's worth not overbrewing it, and if you double boil the leaves with the milk you are doing that. It's just like cooking. If you cook a pie twice, it's not going to be as good.”

To brew chai at home, Cutcliffe recommends heating the milk in a saucepan and boiling the water separately. Add two heaped teaspoons of chai to a small teapot and cover it with 100ml hot water at about 90C. Let it steep for 4-5 minutes, fully submerged. Then add 300ml hot milk to the teapot. Let it sit for 2 minutes, then strain into a cup.

Product road test

If you've spent time in the tea aisle of your local supermarket recently, you'll have noticed the growing number of companies, big and small, offering chai. Here's a rundown of some of the products on the market.

Chai

Red Label Chai by Chai
www.chai.com.au $8.95 for 175g

This retro-looking box of very fine-cut loose leaf Indonesian black tea has 16 per cent spice. The ginger-heavy brew is strong, with cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg and cloves finely ground in the mix. Being finely cut it will infuse quickly – it's good for a chai-lover in a rush.

Madagascar Chai Pyramid Tea Bags by Gloria Jeans
www.gloriajeanscoffees.com.au $9.95 for 20 teabags

These pretty little fabric teabags are completely see-through, revealing a very spicy bundle of roughly ground cloves, anise, cardamom, cinnamon and larger black tea leaves. There's a sweet mulled spice aroma to the tea. “Flavours” are listed in the ingredients.

Green Chai by Pukka
www.pukkaherbs.com.au $8.50 for 20 teabags

Organic green tea is ground up with Fairtrade cinnamon, ginger, licorice root, star anise and cardamom and slipped into these paper teabags. The taste is very fresh, best brewed for five minutes with no milk.

Kashmiri Chai Tea by Jones the Grocer
www.jonesthegrocer.com for locations. $23.50 for 125g

Loose leaf green tea is combined in a pretty silver tin with whole cloves, cardamom pods, roughly cut cinnamon and little shards of dry ginger. Best infused for a little longer in a teapot, at least 3 minutes, this tea is also good made ahead and served chilled.

Caffeine-free Chai by Love Chai
www.lovechai.com.au $10 for 100g

Caffeine-free, certified organic, fairtrade, loose-leaf tea, this is the box-ticking stuff for the ethical, socially minded, trend-conscious tea drinker. With a rooibos base, this rough-cut tea is strong with star anise and cinnamon, and there are black pepper, cloves, cardamom and honey bush in there too. Brew with milk and hot water, and sweeten to taste.

Chai preserved in honey by Mayan Deli
www.mayandeli.com $14.95 for 200g

This envelope of loose-leaf black tea, finely cut spices and honey delivers an aromatic chai. It's incredibly fresh, best brewed with hot water and milk. Although it has been sweetened with honey, the result is far from cloying, imparting a honey flavour without the sugar rush. Available at Orange Grove markets in Rozelle, Sydney, and online.

Chai signature blend by T2
www.t2tea.com $13.50 for 100g box

A classic loose leaf tea with whole cloves and whole cardamom, an aroma dreamed up in Indian fairy tales. There's a caramelised note to the tea, which includes star anise, cinnamon and ginger in its ingredients list, plus “flavours”. It's a warming brew, best had with hot milk on a chilly day.