All the pretty flavored teas are…what?

I used to love the sheer variety of blends of tea and tisanes. The mixes of flowers, fruit pieces, even innovative nuts, spices, cacao beans, etc. was so impressive that I wished I could just buy flavored teas to use as decorative potpourri throughout my house.

But here’s the thing: I could never taste what was special about flavored black teas and white teas, and increasingly I found that flavored green teas tasted artificial. Guess why? It turns out that most flavored teas have, well, food flavors in them. These food flavorings can be artificial (made up of chemicals that mimic the smell and somewhat the taste of certain flavours) or natural flavors (like vanilla, citrus, etc.). But unless the tea manufacturer specifically states that the flavors they’ve added to tea blends are natural, you never know what they’ve put in. So when you think you’re drinking a lovely bit of pineapple and coconut in a pina colada tea, you could in fact be drinking some random unidentified flavoring. And those pineapple and coconut pieces? All just a show. Try it-steep dried pineapple and coconut pieces in hot water and see what it tastes like.

So I thought: huh. All those pretty flower, fruit, nut pieces-all just a show and the real flavor comes from…a chemistry lab? (Which reminds me-I remember creating artificial flavors in high school chemistry lab-if that doesn’t put you off artificial flavoring, I don’t know what does).

Generally most companies don’t fiddle around with herbal tea blends (but check anyway-if the ingredients list includes ‘flavor’ you know there’s some in there). And some companies either use no flavoring or they use only natural flavors. I’ve also found stevia, sugar (from dried fruit), and other ingredients in blends that I’m not super excited about. If you want to know who does what, maybe google around or ask your tea supplier. Decide for yourself what you are willing to take in your tea-nothing, natural flavor, artificial flavor, sugar/sugar substitutes, or anything as long as it tastes good.

For me, what I’ve found is: if you have really good, fresh tea, it’s got such amazing flavor nuances that  you don’t really need to have gimmicky teas. Developing a flavor palate for pure teas, pure herbals and blends of pure teas/herbals is no different than doing so for anything else-be it coffee, chocolate, wine, etc. Once you have great teas, you never go back to the gimmicks.

Here’s a tisane (herbal tea) that I’ve been drinking a lot lately. It’s sweet, soothing, and I think it’d be a really sexy drink to serve guests in the afternoon or at a dinner party:

Cinnamon tisane:

3-4 Cinnamon sticks or about a half a tablespoon of cinnamon pieces (preferably organic, be sure to get the true cinnamon from Ceylon)
Boiling water, approximately one litre.

In a pitcher or teapot, place cinnamon sticks. Pour boiling water over, let steep. You can drink this warm after 10 minutes or as I do, you can let it cool and refrigerate it. If it’s too strong you can add a bit of water or some ice cubes. If it’s too weak for you, add a bit more cinnamon next time. Et voila, you’ve got a wonderfully flavoured, non-caffinated tisane that has nothing out of a chemistry lab in it.

Oh and those blends with flower/fruit/candy pieces lying around in your house? I’m sure they’d make lovely art projects…

Tea: the beginning of the romance

At some point after I began to drink tea, I discovered the pleasure of pure teas. I was still a huge fan of full leaf Assams and gunpowder greens but didn’t really know much else. Beyond that, I had the usual flavoured teas, herbals, etc. usually in teabag form. I wouldn’t really say my repertoire increased too much while I was at graduate school in England. Rather, I learned there was strong tea, stronger tea, and stuff you could polish brass with.

So imagine my surprise and delight when, as a young employee at Fairtrade International, I was put in charge of auditing Fairtrade tea. Part of my job involved actually communicating (via email/phone/etc. in the pre-Skype days) with tea importers and packers. I met tea producers for the first time at the Biofach, a trade fair in Nuernberg, a few months after starting my job. All the people in tea were such characters! (Okay, there are characters in all trades and I myself would likely be considered by others as a character but hey, my first exposure was to the who’s who in the tea business. Tea was my first commodity-love and it stuck). Everyone I met was happy to fill the gaps in my technical knowledge, to give me their multitudinous and very strong opinions. And they did so with such flair! I was hooked.

In 2004 I finally go to go to the field for the very first time, to Pakistan (not for tea), India and Sri Lanka. In India and Sri Lanka I visited tea export houses and plantations for the very first time. I must have asked a thousand questions, many over and over again, and was indulged with tea cupping lessons, tastings of some of the world’s rarest and finest teas, and taught about manufacture and trade. And around all this I learned about the people who grew, plucked, made, tasted and sold the tea. I talked with tea pluckers about the impact of Fairtrade on their lives and the challenges that remained, saw where and how they lived, where their children went to school, where they celebrated, where they prayed. They fed me everywhere I went even though I was bursting at the seams after the second stop of many, and had entertainment programs to show off the talents of their children. I was told that they always prepared these programs and for some reason people would make them cut the programs out for shortage of time. Really? These kids on remote estates would prepare for days for a visitor’s arrival and you wouldn’t think it was worth your while after their parents dissected their lives open for you?

During that first trip, the many that followed, and to this day, my friends in the tea sector have shared their knowledge, their expertise and their most beautiful teas with me with unabated generosity and warmth. And every time I feel like I’ve learned something new, that I know something more, I realize I’ve just scratched the surface. And it just makes me curious to know more.

New Year’s Eve 199? aka ‘My first masala chai’

So it did eventually happen. I did try chai, or Indian tea, for the very first time. At the age of 21. Which is unheard of for someone born and partly raised in India!

Along the way I’d had tons of iced tea (read: sugar water), herbal tea, etc. etc. But having moved to the Pacific Northwest as a teenager, the caffeinated drink I quickly became addicted to was, naturally, coffee. More specifically, this being Seattle in the 1990’s, espresso drinks-lattes, cappuccinos, and the like.

Gallons of chai continued to be brewed in my house and in my surroundings but somehow I’d lost interest? Was subconsciously defiant of the ‘forbidding’ of the chai in childhood? Who knows?

In any case, it did happen. I was over in Los Angeles for New Year’s Eve sometime in college and sometime around 2 a.m., just into the fresh year, the host came around with piping hot cups of masala chai. One sip and I was in beverage heaven. Over the coming years I tried all sorts of masala chai mixes, made my own masala chai with a variety of masala chai spice powders, whole spices, and different types of tea. I returned from a trip to London poorer in the wallet but richer in tins of Harrods teas. The masala chai I made with Harrods’ full leaf Assam tea and whole spices was divine, if a bit unnecessarily decadent. (Not being arrogant-the tea I used was incredible and deserved to be tasted on its own, without any additional spice masking the tasting notes).

Over the years, I’ve learned a few things about a good masala chai:
1. Use black tea. Yes, you can use green, white, rooibos, or any other tea base with chai spices. That would make the tea a chai-spiced (insert type of tea here) but without the black tea it wouldn’t really be a true masala chai
2. You don’t have to use expensive black tea but it should be good quality. Whole leaf tea is a bit of a waste of great tea for masala chai. My favourite for masala chai, as for basic chai, is 2nd flush Assam CTC. Barring that, any Assam broken leaf will do. You really need the maltiness of the Assam as a base flavour for the masala chai.
3. Do not get a pre-mixed chai. It totally throws off the spice and tea balance.
4. There is no vanilla in masala chai. I find it quite gross that so many companies put in in.

So, here’s how you can make an authentic masala chai:

For 2 cups of steaming hot masala chai you need:

Spices (aka ‘masala):
1-2 cardamom pods, partly opened. To open a cardamom pod, hold it between both of your index fingers and thumbs.Use the fingernail of one thumb to crack the cardamom pod
1 inch cinnamon stick (preferably Ceylon cinnamon)
2-3 black peppercorns
2 cloves

Optional: about a quarter inch of fresh ginger, smashed or a couple of pinches of dried ginger powder

Other things:
1-2 teaspoons of black tea. Closer to 1 teaspoon for CTC grades, closer to 2 for broken leaf
1 cup of milk (preferably whole milk)
1 cup of water
Sugar, to taste. I’ve found that honey is a lovely substitute if you want something a bit healthier.

How to prepare:
In a small saucepan add the water. Add the spices to the water and heat the pan on a stovetop. Bring the spices/water mix to a boil and then reduce the heat so that the water simmers. Simmer the spices in the water for 5-10 minutes. Then, add the tea and bring the pan back up to a boil. Boil the tea-spice-water mix for 4-6 minutes. Then add the milk. Bring the tea-spice-water-milk mix to a boil (watch it like a hawk because it will boil over very easily at this point). As soon as the mix starts coming to a boil, reduce the heat. Lift the pan up off the heat if you need to in order to keep it from boiling over.
Once the mix has reached the boil and then come down to a simmer, let the now ‘proto-masala chai’ simmer for a few minutes.

If you’re adding sugar, you can do so as the masala chai simmers. If you’re not sure how much to add, start with 1 teaspoon/cup (i.e. 2 teaspoons), let the sugar dissolve for a bit, and then taste to see if you want more. You can also skip adding the sugar until the tea is poured into cups.

Once the masala chai has simmered for a bit, strain the chai into cups and serve. Honey or sugar (if you didn’t add it during the chai making process) can be added at this point.

This chai is a particularly good afternoon ‘pick me up’. On a rainy day, try it with savoury snacks.

A shared cup

I can’t imagine life in India without tea. Get up in the morning (and if you’re a lucky duck), there’s bed tea. Yes, tea literally served in bed, first thing when you wake up. This wasn’t a tradition in my house, but tea was served soon after waking up, at breakfast. Therafter endless batches of tea, rather, chai (strong, milky, sugary black tea), were cooked up. Friends of my father or uncles would drop by and tea would be served, business acquaintances would come, tea would be served, and mostly, about every other hour or so, someone in the house would have a tea craving and lo and behold, it would appear. Then of course there would be the regular tea times with snacks, to tide everyone over till dinner.

What I vividly remember is the way the chai would be drunk. It was always served in cups with deep saucers. You poured the tea from the cup into the saucer, carefully lifted the saucer to your lips, blew, took a sip. If you were peckish you’d dunk a piece of fresh bread or some cumin flavoured biscuits (cookies) from the bakery down the street into the tea remaining in the cup, and savoured the taste of the blissful communion of tea and carbohydrate.

The division of a cup of tea between cup and saucer was beyond practicality. It was an act of symbolism. Done when one was drinking tea alone, the cup and saucer ritual was merely to cool down hot tea fast. Done in the company of friends, it became the ultimate sign of affection. Instead of having a cup of tea each, close friends would share such a cup of tea: one taking a saucerful, the other, half a cup.

This sharing ritual goes well beyond the confines of the home. The ‘cutting-chai’ is a well-known phenomenon: a glass of tea, divided into two, shared among friends. A shot of sweet-strong milkiness on a hot afternoon, a quick conversation, then onward. Beautiful.

Decades later I would come across a fancy new phenomenon called the ‘chai-tea latte’. Globetrotters landing in India would come across the spiced version of chai and recreate it for easy use in cafes. It’s a perfectly fine drink, of course. Since then the chai phenomenon has exploded and you can find all sorts.

But I have found nothing, nothing, that substitutes the pure pleasure of a shared chai, be it in the cup-saucer format or in two small, too-hot, clear glasses. Relegated to homes, tea stalls, restaurants for the common man, never served in fancy locales, it remains the tea drink that is closest to my heart.

Oh, and here’s a revelation: despite the gallons of chai made in my house everyday when I lived in India as a child, I wasn’t allowed a single drop. No sir, it was hot milk and sugar, or hot milk and Bournvita, or some other such concotion of milk with not a hint of tea in it. I more than made up for this when I did my internship in Mumbai after grad school. Going out into the summer midday heat with my field colleagues meant stopping by for a cutting chai, field visits meant endless cups of tea served in steel tumblers in the countless tiny makeshift homes in slums we visited. Coming back to office, we were guaranteed to catch at least one, if not both rounds, of the evening tea, served by the friendly neighbourhood tea-stall owner. Little did I know then, sipping my sweet, sweet chai, that in just a few years to come I would taste some of the rarest teas on the planet, in the places where they were made, with the people who made them. But the traditional chai will always hold a special place in my heart.

Here’s how it’s made:
(Makes 2 cups)

  • Bring a cup of water to boil
  • Put in two teaspoons of black tea (preferably fresh Assam CTC. If you can’t smell the fragrance, your tea is too old. Go get fresh tea.)
  • Lower the heat to medium/medium-high so the tea continues to ‘cook’ at a rolling boil, but not too vigorously
  • After about 4-5 minutes add in a cup of full-fat milk (if you want to be fancy, heat the milk alongside the tea and pour it in once its hot. if you want to be more ‘everyday’ just put it in cold). Once you put the milk in, watch the chai like a hawk. It boils over incredibly quickly.
  • If you’re adding sugar, do so now. I’d say about a teaspoon per cup is fine, more if you like it sweeter.
  • Bring everything to a boil again, lower the heat, bring to boil again (repeat a couple of times).
  • Strain the tea into mugs, cups/saucers, glasses.
  • Enjoy with a friend or savour alone.