What is Chai?
Confession: I used to be so confused by chai. Is it a plain black tea? Is it a sugary syrup mixed with hot milk, like at Starbucks? Or is homemade chai concentrate something else entirely?
In some languages like Arabic and Indian, the word “chai” simply means tea. In India there are different types of chai, depending on the spice additions. For example, if you add fennel seeds, the tea boiled with milk and sugar is called Saunf wali chai. But if you add cardamom, cinnamon and cloves, then it’s known as masala chai. And in Arabic countries, a common form of chai is Karak Chai. It’s a delicious blend of water steeped with black tea, cardamom, saffron and a little sugar, mixed with evaporated or condensed milk. Side note, my husband makes the best Karak tea. 😉
So basically, chai is a type of drink made from tea leaves steeped with herbs and spices. Many who enjoy chai also mix the tea with hot milk and sugar. This addition of milk allows the drink to fall in the category of “latte”, although a latte usually contains espresso. But when you order a chai latte at most coffee shops in the Western world, you’re usually getting hot milk with a powder or sugary syrup that imitates chai. Being able to control the amount of sugar is one of the reasons why I like to make my own at home.
Chai Tea versus Chai Concentrate
As I was making chai concentrate, I thought, hold up. Am I just making really strong black tea with some extra aromatic spices? How is this different from just making a mug of tea? What’s “concentrated” about it? I was expecting a thick syrup at the end, but this concentrate is the same consistency as black tea. Well, it’s all about the ratio of tea and spices to water.
Normally, you’d steep one tea bag and a pinch or two of spices in a full 8 ounces of water, then add a small splash of milk. But by adding a larger quantity of spices and steeping the tea mixture longer, you are able to use equal parts of the chai concentrate to milk when making a traditional chai tea, or as many call it in the Western world, a “chai tea latte”. So for an 8 ounce mug, you only add 4 ounces of chai concentrate along 4 ounces of hot milk. (Less chai, more milk.) It may not seem like a big difference, but these spices can get pricey!
Chai ain’t Cheap
If you walk down the supermarket aisle in a Western country, you’ll probably find several brands of “chai concentrate”. The average price for Starbucks’ 32 ounce container of Tazo chai concentrate may only cost you $4. But with that, you get 24 grams of sugar per 6 ounces, and who knows how many preservatives!
I scoured my local stores for the most inexpensive chai spices. I found a large bag of star anise at a local Indian market for a quarter of the price compared to the chain grocery store. And my husband picked up whole cardamom pods at a local Middle Eastern store for half the price. I found black tea and ginger at decent prices at most major grocery stores. And if you have a store with a bulk section, that’s where I was able to get the exact amounts of black peppercorns, whole cloves and cinnamon sticks I needed. So to find cheaper whole spices, I’d suggest to look around and check out the bulk section and smaller grocery markets.
Ground spices are sometimes less expensive than whole spices, but just know that using ground spices may affect the texture of your chai. I’d suggest to use a cheesecloth if you use ground spices, to help strain out as much as possible. Otherwise, your chai may have the grainy and powdery spices still floating in it.
If you love chai and know you’ll be drinking it on the regular, then it’s totally worth investing in these wonderfully healthy spices to make homemade chai concentrate. The upfront cost may be high, but the spices will last you a long time. Each batch of this chai concentrate lasts me a week of drinking a hot or iced mug nearly every day! ☕
Sugar Free Chai Concentrate
If you buy Starbucks’ chai concentrate from the store, you’re looking at consuming 6 teaspoons of sugar in less than a cup. I don’t know about you, but making my own homemade chai concentrate is worth it just to stay away from all that sugar. My chai concentrate actually contains zero sugar. Usually, chai concentrate is made with at least a half cup of sugar. But I like to use homemade oat milk in my chai tea drinks, which I already sweeten with maple syrup. By not adding any sugar in my chai concentrate, I can control exactly how sweet each and every mug of this delicious drink tastes.
Homemade Chai Concentrate
- 4 cups water
- 10 green cardamom pods
- 8 black peppercorns
- 8 whole cloves
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 3 whole allspice
- 2 star anise
- ¼ tsp ground nutmeg
- 1 inch piece of ginger, skin removed with a spoon
- ¼ tsp vanilla
- 4 black tea leaves or 4 tablespoons loose black tea such as English breakfast, Assam or Ceylon
- Mix the water and all the spices, ginger and vanilla in a small pot, leaving out the tea for now. Bring to a simmer on medium heat for 10 minutes.
- Add the tea to the pot and continue to simmer for 3 minutes.
- Remove the pot from the heat and allow everything to steep for 10 minutes.
- Strain the chai through a fine mesh sieve or a cheesecloth.
- Add straightaway to a hot drink, or let cool to room temperature, then store in the fridge in an airtight container like a glass mason jar. For a hot chai latte, add equal parts of chai concentrate and hot milk, then sweeten with sugar, honey or maple syrup to your liking. For an iced chai latte, add equal parts chai concentrate and cold milk in a glass with ice cubes. Sweeten with honey or maple syrup to your liking. Enjoy!