Saturday, October 24, 2009

From The Other Blog

Just call me Chai Wallah – I’m There

One of the very very neat things about writing a tea blog is that I can make myself all sorts of concoctions with abandon. It’s fun, educational, and tasty for me, and fairly amusing to friends & family who see me somewhat hopped up on a constant smooth caffeine high.

Today is a day that will go down in history for me: the day that I made my own masala chai. Oh. My. God.

First, a note on the word chai: It literally means tea.
  • Mandarin Chinese: Cha
  • Chinese Amoy Dialect: Te (pronounced tay)
  • Dutch & German: Thee
  • Italian, Spanish, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Hungarian & Malay: Te
  • English: Tea
  • French: Thé
  • Finnish: Tee
  • Latvian: Teja
  • Korean: Ta
  • Tamil: Tey
  • Sinhalese: Thay
  • Scientist-ese: Thea
The Mandarin, cha, became ch’a in Cantonese and passed as cha to Portuguese (during trade at Cantonese-speaking Macao) and so also to Persian, Japanese and Hindi, becoming shai in Arabic, ja in Tibetan, chay in Turkish, and chai in Russian.

From The Tea Companion, A Connoisseur’s Guide, by Jane Pettigrew.

So, for the love of loose leaf, please try not to order a “chai tea”. Especially if you are riding the railways in India. Unless, of course, you enjoy seeing people smirk at you.

So anyway, I had intended on making an entry on masala chai (masala = spice). And the thought occurred to me, “why not make my own?” I’ve never done it before, and what better way to be inspired?

I’m lucky to have relatives who travel all over the world. My dad brought me back some beautiful teas from his recent trip to India, including a Darjeeling Mountain tea. It was this one I decided to use for my “Indian Masala Milk Chai”. Here is my recipe:
  1. Boil 2 cups water in a stainless steel saucepan
  2. Add: A cinnamon stick, 4 cardamom pods, 4 whole black peppercorns, a little ground or whole cloves. In a moment of inspiration, I also added a spoonful of shredded coconut because I had it in the cupboard and thought, “why not?”. You could also put in a little crushed ginger, but I didn’t feel like it this time.
  3. Also toss in 2 tsp. loose leaf black tea
  4. Boil for 1-2 minutes
  5. Chant some sort of mantra to make it fun and more authentic.
  6. Add 2 cups milk (not skim) and a tsp. vanilla and let cool.
  7. Add sugar: brown, white, maple syrup, honey, whatever. To taste.
  8. Strain the mixture into your favorite mug (this is no time for fine bone china) and enjoy, enjoy, enjoy.
  9. Never buy store-bought again.
This turned out so well, that I plan on making it whenever I need to be soothed or warmed. I’m also going to make it for anyone who wants to try it. It’s the kind of thing that needs to be shared.

Some of the main spices used in masala chai.  Photo by Move The Clouds,
Some of the main spices used in masala chai.
Photo by Move The Clouds,

If you want to know more about masala chai, here are some very nice links with recipes for chai, and recipes that use chai.

Magic Pearls

I thought I’d talk a little about jasmine tea, as I happened to mention it in my introduction. It is one of my favorite teas, and it has such a calming effect on me when I drink it – even more so than certain commercial teas that claim to soothe the soul. I’m not sure who came up with the idea of pairing a floral with tea, but I could kiss them.

There’s something wonderfully magical about a flower that blooms and releases its perfume in the evening. Jasminum sambac happens to be such a plant. It is a ‘climber’ with sweet fragrant flowers, “scattered stars” of purest white. J. sambac, or Arabian jasmine, is the type used to scent tea.

There are many varieties of jasmine, approximately 200 species in all, but rich J. sambac gives Chinese tea its intoxicating aroma.  The white flowers, “Moonlight of the Grove”, are said to exhale a richer fragrance at night. For this reason, it is critical to gather the blossoms at the right time. Ideally, they are picked at noon in order to bring them to the tea factory around 4:00pm. There they are stored for a few hours in a warm room to encourage the development of the aroma, and then the production of jasmine tea begins around 8:00pm.

About forty pounds of flowers are required to scent a hundred pounds of tea. As you can imagine, jasmine bushes need to be planted in abundance, and so there are areas in the Fujian Province in China that are famous for their jasmine flower production.

Manufacturing jasmine tea requires at least several days, and the finer quality jasmines necessitate up to a month of scenting. Fresh blossoms are introduced to giant piles of tea leaves, and are left to infuse their perfume into the leaves for several hours. When the flowers are ’spent’, another batch is brought in, and this operation can be repeated a few times.

Sometimes you’ll see jasmine tea with flowers in it, but they only add to the appearance of the tea and not to the taste. Most times, the flowers won’t be present at all in good quality teas, as the blossoms have been blown out of the tea factory by large fans. You can imagine these flowers being scattered to the wind, having done their duty. What they’ve left behind, in my opinion, is much more beautiful than what you’d find in any perfume bottle. And you get the added benefit of tasting this exhilarating potion.

I’ve been very lucky to stumble upon a gorgeous jasmine tea called Dragon Pearl. The leaves have been hand-rolled into little balls, which unfurl in the brewing process. I have a tin of Dragon Pearl Jasmine made by Harney & Sons, and the aroma is indeed enchanting when you take off the lid. I’ve compared it to other commercial jasmines, and there’s absolutely no doubt about the difference in quality. I’ve read about a more costly Yin Hao Jasmine tea, which apparently is scented about eight or nine times, and it can take as long as one month to finish a batch. I desperately want to try it. I might just have to order some online.
Dragon Pearl Jasmine, by Harney & Sons
Dragon Pearl Jasmine, by Harney & Sons

For more information on Harney & Sons, visit their website, where the above photograph was taken:

Questions of the day: Do you have a favorite scented tea? What is it? Do you think that scent is an important part of drinking tea? Do you prefer florals or something more fruity? Or do you believe that tea ought to be left alone, as it has its own distinct fragrance?
Sources: The Fragrant Path, by Louise Beebe Wilder and The Story of Tea, a Cultural History and Drinking Guide, by Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss.

And for some listening enjoyment:
Dome Epais le Jasmin – The Flower Duet (Lakme)

Are you a tea purist?

Look, I’m not a writer. I don’t even know why I started this blog, although I find myself impassioned by tea and I guess I felt the need to disseminate information about it.

I’m not an expert or tea master, either. But for some reason, when someone mentions tea my ears prick up and I feel the need to contribute to the conversation or answer a question about it.

Take yesterday, for example. My daughter and I were on the train leaving Montreal to come back home to Dundas, and I decided to settle into the trip by ordering a tea (Jasmine Green)*. The woman sitting across from us also ordered a green tea, and exclaimed out loud, “Jasmine is green tea?” So I jumped at the occasion to explain that jasmine was the scent added to the tea – the process involves piling the sweet-scented flowers onto the green or black tea so that the perfume infuses into the tea leaves. The woman nodded her head and politely said “Oh.” The conversation about tea ended there (I do know when to shut up), and we continued to talk about other things, and all in all we had a lovely time together.

So I realize that writing this blog is something I want to do. If you want to follow along with me, welcome! We’ll see where this goes. If not, go drink your Pepsi or whatever it is you drink and have a good day!

To get this conversation started, I thought I’d ask you: How do you take your tea? Are you a purist, in the sense that you believe you should not add anything to your brew? Or do you prefer to pour in a little milk and sugar? What about lemon or honey? Do you ever add spices to your tea? Also, do you use tea bags, or do you think the leaves ought to be loose? Let me know what you think, and over time I’ll let you know my preferences too.

Ciao for now.

* I thought I’d give it a try – I was reluctant to order tea on the train, as I’d done it once before and the “brew” was so disgusting that I had to throw it out. But, VIA Rail seems to have improved their refreshment options, and it turns out I wasn’t disappointed this time ’round. I was happy to see that it was fair trade, and the jasmine flavour was decent, allowing me to relax and enjoy the start of my trip.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just want to say what a great blog you got here!
I've been around for quite a lot of time, but finally decided to show my appreciation of your work!

Thumbs up, and keep it going!