September 6, 2006

Masal chai: my holy grail of teas

One of my favorite places to hang out in London is Camden Town. If New York City has Greenwich Village and Paris has the Rive Gauche or Left Bank, London has Camden Town with it's bustling market. If I had nothing planned for the weekend, then Camden Market is where you'll find me, lost in the blur of color and cacophony of sound and aroma that is this bohemian wonderland. Everything about Camden is an assault to the senses.

The market has become a favorite among locals and tourists alike because of the wide variety of goods being sold here including hard-to-find items from faraway places. Regent's Canal that runs straight through the middle of the Market lined with pubs and eateries where you can sip your pint as you watch the canal boats go by and through the lock. Camden Market is so big that it is actually six markets in one: the Stables which is the largest market of all has mostly vintage clothing and furniture, Inverness street market, the original Camden Lock market which features crafts from all over the world, and a few other sections for art enthusiasts, antiques, used books, handmade soaps, earthenware, and even what they call an Electric Ballroom - an indoor market on the weekends selling music-related goods.

During the summer, I would spend hours sometimes even the entire day here just browsing the stalls, getting my fortune told and people-watching (Camden Town is also known for it eccentric and shady-looking characters, as well as a place to score easy pot). But my favorite part about visiting this place was the food. All kinds of food!

There is a strong Oriental presence but you will find specialties from around the world. There are stalls selling dimsum and noodles, burritos and tacos, gyros and falafels , fish and chips, Belgian frites, donuts and coffee, tartines and croissants, curries and tikka masalas, sushi and tempura, spring rolls and pho, crepes and pastries, shawarma and hummus, samosas and skewers of chicken teriyaki, chocolates and fudge sold in blocks as big as shoeboxes, mulled wine and it, I can assure you you'd find it there! I can write a whole blog about Camden Market and it's food. But I won't, as it is something that is best left to be experienced. So I will get to my point. Why am I talking about Camden Market anway, and what does it have to do with my post title?

Well, it was in Camden Market where I first had my taste of real masala chai, a sweet spiced Indian milk tea. Not the restaurant variety that was probably made with a tea bag and some milk, which was usually week and diluted. I'm talking potent authentic Indian masala chai, being scooped up and served from a huge pot like a witch's cauldron.

I was first drawn to the stall like a dog following a scent. I sniffed the air until I found it, until I found where that aroma was coming from - a heady mix of cinnamon, cardamom and other spices. I looked into the pot, seeing big chunks of ginger and cinnamon sticks bobbing along in the milky pool and was hit by a waft of steam that was at once intoxicating and inviting.

I ordered a cup, warming my hands around it as I walked towards the canal. I knew this was going to be an unforgettable experience, so I wanted a nice view to go along with it. And it was. I sat on the bench with the sun in my face listening to Brazilian samba from an eatery nearby, slowly sipping from my cup, thinking that all was well in the world.

Prior to this experience, I had only ever tried tea-bag masala chai like the kind made by Stash. But tasting the real thing ruined those for me. So it was that every weekend, or whenever I was up that way during the week, I bought some homemade fudge and chai. Many times having more than one cup. It became a ritual for me. Rain or shine. Especially during the winter months, when there was nothing like a nice cup of hot chai to warm my soul. Sometimes in the evenings I would opt for a cup of mulled wine instead (incidentally, this is my next experiment), but ultimately it was the chai I came for.

Moving back to the Philippines, I knew finding a local place serving authentic masala chai as good as Camden's was would be a challenge. But I searched anyway. In every Indian restaurant I visited, I ordered their masala chai and though most were alright, none came close. I searched online for recipes, each one considerably different from the other. I had about five different recipes saved in my folder, all waiting to be tried and tweaked to my liking.

Making chai is like making sangria, or paella, or adobo. There is no end to the diversity of recipes, you can add or remove ingredients (in this case, spices) as you please to find your perfect brew. The fun is in the experimenting!

In my research, I discovered the most delightful website about spices. It's called Spice Advice. You'll find everything you ever wanted to know about popular spices here including how to test spices for freshness, storage suggestions, recipes, a spice encyclopedia, a history on spice trading, measurement conversions, etc.

This is more or less the recipe I've come up with after experimenting with four different recipes:

Masala Chai

2 cups water
1 1/2 cups fresh milk
1/2 cup evaporated milk
2 tsps black tea
3 cinnamon sticks or 2 tsp ground cinnamon
10-12 whole cloves
10-12 cardamom pods, cracked
1 ginger finger - about 3/4 inch
1 nutmeg - freshly ground

In a medium sized pot, bring all the ingredients to a boil. Then lower the heat and let it simmer for at least 45 minutes.


joey said...

Nens! What a great looking cup of chai! Not so pale like mine...When I get back we have to make a masala chai afternoon tea at my place with some stuff to nibble on too! :) I promise to buy black tea! this!

Thanks for the spice link too :)

Katrina said...

I love masala chai too! Unfortunately, the only places I've tried it are in Swagat (pretty good, and cheap) and Coffee Bean (bland and expensive, but convenient when I'm craving). Im sure Camden's is so much better. I wish good chai were easier to get here, especially since with all the spices, steeping, etc. involved in making it, it sounds tedious to make myself.

Katrina said...

Oh, and that spice link is a great resource! Thanks for posting it. :-)

wysgal said...

I'm still seriously considering studying in London just because it's so much more interesting than most places in the USA (except maybe Manhattan). =)

christine said...

Jo, great idea! Let's test 2 other recipes while were at it, so we can continue tweaking and fine-tuning until we come up with what we think is the perfect one. :) I was really happy with the one I made last time and had even kept the leftovers for reheating the next day, it still tasted great. Just still lacked more ginger.

Katrina, I didn't like the one of Swagat too much, though it was something I could settle for when the craving hits. I don't remember what it was about it I didn't like. Yeah, i wish it was more readily available. While I already have all the ingredients for it, and actually enjoy making it now, it's nice to be able to drive up somewhere, order a cup and drink it on the go whenever you felt like it.

You're both welcome about the spice link, it's such a great discovery! I've been reading it regularly.

ana said...

i'm just a simple teh tarik person. i'll try masala chai, sounds interesting with all that spices.

Mila Tan said...

When you get ready to do a mulled wine let me know. I have a mix as well as a toss everything in the pot kind of version. Best part of a mulled wine is the smell it imports to the room. Makes you feel like xmas.

christine said...

Ana, if you like tea and milky drinks, I'm pretty sure you would love masala chai. Give it a try! :)

Mila, will let you know. I was actually thinking of making some this weekend at the beach. I have 3 recipes, one is a brown-sugar mulled wine, and another is a lemon-orange one. I haven't decided which I'm trying first. Both sound equally good.

Katrina said...

Christine's post on masala chai, Mila's mention of mulled wine and Lori's post today on Spices 'n Flavours, together with today's cool, cloudy weather is making me want to curl up on a sofa, wrapped in a big, wool knit throw, and watch the sparks fly in the fireplace...Next someone's going to talk about eggnog!

Lori said...

Eggnog, hey? That'd be me then, Katrina. :p I also love masala chai and with the opening of Spices & Flavours, perhaps you could finally make your own, Nena. :)

christine said...

Lori, I did actually. Twice now. :) Those pictures I took about 2 weeks ago during my second attempt and I got those spices from Spices and Flavors. I noticed also that Cash & Carry has all the spices I need for masala chai too. I was quite happy with the chai I made. The recipe was kinda of cross between Melissa's and Elise's. I just tweaked to how I tought I would like it. But I think I need to add a bit more ginger next time.

christine said...

Katrina, my first taste of mulled wine was on Christmas night in London, at my Swedish friend's flat after a large turkey dinner at my Tito's place. And so it will always remind of her and that night.

I have never made eggnog, Lori. I'm going to check out your post about it.

Elna said...

Would love to try making masala chai on my own. Just like you, I love the masala chai at Camdem Market. I do love going there whenever I can. I live in Notting Hill and I frequently shop for fruits and veges at Portobello Market. I do wish Portobello have the masala chai that they do in Camdem Market.

christine said...

You've tried the masala chai in Camden! I don't know many people who have, that's great! You're so lucky, I miss all the markets in London, the Portobello one included. And how nice for you to live so close to 2 of my favorite bookstores in the world - Books for Cooks and The Travel Bookshop.

elna said...

Hi Christine, yes I haven't meet anyone else who loves masala chai as I do. Well it seems like we'll both agree on this - that we can spend hours roaming around Camden Market. *-* Oh yes just like you, I also love Books for Cooks and The Travel Bookshop! You've got to look me up when you come visit London again so we can hang around together in Portobello and Campden.

christine said...

That sounds really nice, Elna. I will definitely look you up for a nice afternoon market stroll should I ever make it back there soon. :)