The first time I tried chai was in the kitchen of my parent's house, and served by my younger sister. "You have to taste this-" she insisted, pushing a mug across the countertop to me. She refused to elaborate on its contents. The flavors, she said, would speak for themselves.
The chai that she prepared for me came in a small carton. She measured some of its content and stirred it into a steaming mug of milk, then began to sift through our father's spice cabinet for appropriate garnishes. She pulled out some spices (which, looking back, were probably cinnamon, ginger, or nutmeg, possibly all three) and decorated the skim of my drink with them, then passed it over, propped her head upon her elbows and awaited my response.
I lifted the mug to my face and took in a strange, exotic array of spices. The steam gathered in little droplets around my cheeks as I brought my lips to the edge of the porcelain for a slow, breathy slurp. "Isn't it good?" came an immediate prompt. "It's weird," was my reply. My sister nodded in agreement, but urged me to try it again. "It's the best thing in the world," she cooed.
By this time our older sister had passed through the kitchen and paused to watch my changing facial expressions. She began to laugh. "It kind of tastes the way Big's pipe smells, right?" With that, my mug went back on the counter. "Big" was our grandfather, and all of my earliest memories of him are accompanied by the chokingly sweet smell of his tobacco, which he sucked through a wooden Sherlock pipe at his dining room table. I would never have made the connection between the flavor chai and that sweet scent, but once it was suggested it became the only thing I could think of. Pipe tobacco in a cup. It would be six years before I gave chai another chance.
Now, let me set a few things straight about this early experience. I was seventeen. Though I surely would have argued otherwise, I lacked any real otherworldliness, any tactile experience with other cultures other than my own. I had yet to eat Thai, Ethiopian, or Indian food, and the flavors that had presented themselves in the cup that day sent my responses into shock. I had simply never had anything like them before. So I thought chai was "weird".
It wasn't as weird six years later, when I worked as a barista in a local coffee shop and served chai lattes to every fifth or sixth customer. By then my tastes had matured; I often indulged in what we called a "Dirty Chai", a traditional chai latte embellished with a shot of espresso. I had made room in my palate for flavors that had previously been foreign to me, and so, it seems, had the rest of the nation.
Ten years ago, chai was relatively unknown to the American public. It comes to us from the Eastern hemisphere, India specifically, where masala chai, or spiced tea, has been brewed for centuries. Indians make a strong brew of black tea and spices, which they mix with buffalo milk and sugar for a rich, deliciously complex drink. In the most recent decade, their recipe reached American soil and planted firm roots into coffeehouse culture, but somewhere along the journey chai was transformed.
It's not that the ingredients are any different, but by the time they reach the barista they are in an entirely untraditional form. As I mentioned earlier, the chai my sister made for me came in a carton. She had only to mix it with milk and heat it up. Her fingers never touched a cardamom pod, nor did she wield a kitchen knife to render ginger root into nearly transparent slivers. She was saved that sort of effort, as are most baristas in the nation.
My sister used what is called a " chai concentrate ". Sure, we'd like to imagine that every coffee shop has a mortar and pestle in the back room with fresh ground cinnamon, cloves, and sliced ginger waiting to be boiled into a terrific chai tea, but more often than not what they have is a fridge full of little cartons or a counter full of jugs. But rest assured-there is still a mortar and pestle, somewhere. The time-consuming work is done by specialists, who boil and strain the spiced tea and package it for the convenience of cafes. Their labor saves baristas countless hours, and makes it possible for them to serve a chai latte in about a minute. It also takes the guesswork out of chai-making; just add milk, and serve. Those of us who frequent coffee shops know which barista makes our cappuccinos and americanos the way that we like them, and we are skeptical when a new employee takes our order. But there is no reason to fear when we order chai-there is far less room for error when using a concentrate to make it. So long as the concentrate is of good quality, the steaming chai latte is sure to be as well. No matter who makes it.
But what makes a quality concentrate? Well, it depends on who you ask. Some baristas prefer liquid concentrates to powders, as they tend to blend easier. Some also prefer heavier or lighter concentrations, depending on their measuring techniques. But if you ask the drinker, it all boils down to flavor.
Yes, it took six years for me to try chai for the second time, but please don't hold my early hesitancy against me. I have since tried dozens of chai products from many different makers, and I attest: the best ones, quite simply, are those that taste the best. Now, I have filled my sister's shoes. Try chai, I urge you. There is nothing better in this world.