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…

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.