Fit to be chai'd

Seeking inner peace? Try turning to spicy tea

Seeking inner peace? Try turning to spicy tea

May 21, 2008|By YOLANDA DIFABIO/Special to The Herald-Mail

Standing behind the counter at a local coffee shop, it seems like there are two kinds of people - those who drink coffee and those who drink tea or chai.

At Skyline Cafe in downtown Hagerstown, proprietor Ashley Haywood says that the customer who chooses chai is looking for comfort and relaxation.

"Chai drinkers are a different breed than the coffee customer, who is looking for that quick caffeine fix," she says.

Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia, says chai is a tea brewed with aromatic spices. The standard, Americanized version is more sweet than spicy and often made from a concentrate or a powder instead of being actually brewed on the spot.

In America, chai tea is typically a sweetened, spicy, milky tea. Susan Hedges, owner at Heavenly Grounds Coffeehouse in Greencastle, Pa., says they sell one kind and it is Oregon Chai, a concentrate. It is popular especially with young people. Customers like it straight up but also request vanilla or other flavorings.


Haywood says her chai customers are looking for a feeling of relaxation and inner wellness. Her coffee shop serves five different versions of chai.

Trish Tanksley, waitress at Shaharazade's Exotic Cuisine Tea Room in Shepherdstown, W.Va., serves several varieties of chai. The house blend is homemade.

"We have a house blend in the Indian tradition," she says. "It has an Assam tea base. We add cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg and cloves. We mix this with a blend of milk and sugar. This is how it's served in India."

Cloves are important to the flavor of the blend, Tanksley says. Cloves give a sharp foundation to the spice spectrum. Ginger adds spiciness.

"Chai" is literally the Hindi word for tea. Order chai in India, and you get strong, black, brewed tea with added spices such as cardamom, ginger, cinnamon and cloves. According to the Tao of Tea Web site at, chai is usually served in a traditional unglazed ceramic cup called a kasora. The earthy smell of the wet ceramic cup is part of the traditional experience of drinking Indian chai.

This South Asian view of tea is the essence of drinking chai, according to Sharif Basharyar, co-owner of Laila's Kitchen in Hagerstown.

"Chai is tea. Tea is chai. Period." says Basharyar, originally of Afghanistan.

Basharyar and his wife, Laila, have their own special version of chai, called shir-chai, which uses green tea instead of black. It has a crisp, fruity fragrance, and is served sweetened with milk on the side. Cardamom and chopped pistachios are added. After brewing and adding milk, shir-chai turns a lovely pink color. The result is a more subtle chai than the usual version to which Americans have become familiar.

So, was the Laila's tea tastier than an Americanized chai? It certainly was prettier. And it went really well with their baklava. This experience of having a lovely tea accompanied by a homemade sweet treat is very in keeping with the concept of chai - to slow down and stop the world for a moment.

Masala chai

4 cups pure water
4 cups organic whole milk
1/2 teaspoon cardamom seeds
1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon cloves
1 whole cinnamon stick
1 star anise seedpod or 1/2 teaspoon anisette
1 whole nutmeg
1 teaspoon fresh minced ginger
1 whole vanilla bean, split
4 teaspoons strong black loose tea
8 ounces honey

Bring water and milk to a soft boil. Add all ingredients except honey. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from heat and strain through cheesecloth. Add honey and mix well. May be served immediately or stored in refrigerator.

- Courtesy of Ashley Haywood, Skyline Cafe, Hagerstown

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