A delicate drink that we may take for granted today, tea has inspired art, culture, religion and even revolution.
Five-thousand years ago, China's second emperor had the vision to cultivate herbs and study their uses as medicine. Legend has it that one serendipitous day, a leaf blew into his cup of hot water and as he watched the colours transfer from leaf to water, he discovered what we know today as tea. It took a couple thousand years for it to fully catch on, but by 400 AD the demand for tea as a medicinal beverage was in full swing and the cultivation of tea was sweeping the Chinese countryside.
Tea was not a secret for long and as ceremony began to surround tea, the Buddhist religion began to be imported along with the Chinese tea to other countries such as Japan.
Art followed life as elegant teahouses began to pop up all over China around 960 AD, offering delicate teas in handcrafted teacups made of porcelain and pottery. Palates also blossomed as frothed and scented teas with flowers became the trend and old flavours fell by the wayside.
One might say that tea was to blame for the Mongol takeover of China, as the Chinese emperor, Hui Tsung, was so obsessed with tea that he started throwing tea parties with tea tasting tournaments in the courts. Apparently this little distraction caused him to be "tea-minded" and the Mongols slipped in and took over his empire.
Tea soon started to lose its high social status and since the new Mongol leader was not much of a tea guy, the high courts dropped the tea rituals. The Japanese also embraced tea and it became a celebration of the mundane aspects of everyday life. By 1484 Japanese Shogun Yoshimasa had inspired tea ceremonies, painting and even drama.
The Europeans finally started to take notice of tea when a Venetian author linked the long life of Asians to the tea they drink and Portuguese priests brought it back after their travels around China. The Dutch really had the biggest impact on Europe, as the Dutch East India Trading Co. became the first importer of teas and their china to their homeland. It was very expensive, though, and again, only the aristocracy could afford to drink it and own the fine teacups.
China offered huge chests of tea as a gift to the Russian czar who refused it, thinking it was of no use compared to say, vodka! Meanwhile, England was starting to catch onto this "health beverage" and when Charles II married a Portuguese tea lover, tea became so chic that alcohol consumption actually declined. The Brits began their takeover as English East India Trading Co. imported tea and convinced the king to ban Dutch imports. Around the same time, Britain took over New Amsterdam, renaming it New York, and the British tea culture grew in this new land. The Massachusetts Colony became well known for drinking black tea and eventually as the New Colonies grew tired of paying taxes to the British government, they started smuggling Dutch tea into the colonies. Tea and taxes became such a hot-button topic that it led to the infamous Boston Tea Party where colonists, dressed like natives, boarded East India Trading ships and dumped their tea chests into the Boston harbour, beginning one of history's great revolutions.
The English East India Trading Co. began its downward spiral when in 1830 British Prime Minister Earl Grey (namesake for the tea) passed an act that caused the EITC to lose its monopoly. This then opened the door for many companies to have a piece of the pie and businessmen like Charles Harrod (of Harrod's) and Thomas Twining (of Twinings) grew as great tea importers. Twinings also introduced the tea blends, flavoured teas and gave us the famous Earl Grey tea.
The year 1908 brought the inadvertent discovery of tea bags when a New York tea importer sent tea to clients in small silk bags and unknowingly, they steeped it right in the bag. From that point on, tea became the commercial product we know of today and as you put your kettle on to enjoy your next cup, take a moment to drink in the story behind your long-journeyed tea.
Tea - The favourite among tea experts is Darjeeling, with a little Assam for colour. However, any unscented black tea will work just fine. Red teas, green teas, and even herbal teas are sometimes used, so feel free to experiment.
Milk - In choosing what to put in your chai, there is one simple rule: the thicker the milk, the richer the chai. Whole milk, cream, even butter will go into the most delicious chais. But of course, these options come with a high caloric cost.
Sugar - The big sweeteners are sugar (brown, white, or cane) and honey. Each one lends a different twist to the finished tea.
Spices - The selection and proportion of spices used in chai tea varies from recipe to recipe. Try a few sample recipes to get a feel for some of the more popular balances, and then experiment to suit your tastes. The most common spices used in spiced chais are green cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, vanilla, cloves, black peppercorns, almond, nutmeg, bay leaves, black cardamom, anise/fennel and allspice.
Making the Chai
Bring water to a boil and add solid spices. Cover, reduce heat, and allow to simmer. Ten minutes is sufficient, but soaking the spices longer will add to the flavour.
Bring the water back up to a rolling boil, then turn down the heat. Add tea, and allow to infuse according to the directions on the package (usually 3-5 minutes, covered). Remove the tea and spices.
Add milk, and bring back to a boil. Reduce heat, and add vanilla, other extracts, flavourings, and sugar or honey. Stir for 30 seconds, and then turn heat to low to keep tea warm while serving.
For presentation, top with whipped cream and/or powdered nutmeg and cinnamon.