Wednesday, January 20, 2010


When I first moved to Portland, there was a local chain of drive-through coffee shops called Coffee People. As you could probably predict, they were bought out by Starbucks. Coffee People still sells their beans online, for those who miss the roast. But for me, it wasn't about the coffee. It was about the milkshakes. Specifically, the chai milkshakes.

Chai milkshakes weren't on the menu, but you could usually talk your way into one. The coffee shops stocked Oregon Chai, of course, a locally-made concentrated version of the Indian spiced tea. This was tossed into the blender with vanilla ice cream, where the peppery heat and clovey bite would be tempered by by the sweet frozen cream. It was like sipping a fluffy cardamom cloud.

I've always had a soft spot for cardamom, the strong-tasting seed pods that are seldom found outside of Indian cooking. Which is why I love chai. Chai is simply the Hindi word for tea, and is generally used to describe what Indians would call chai masala, or spiced tea. The spices can vary, but usually feature a strong cardamom presence, some nice warm cinnamon and cloves, and a few peppercorns for heat. When it's too chilly for shakes, a cup of chai, spicy-sweet and milky, makes for a perfect coffee break.


Chai is found throughout South Asia, and takes many forms. You can fiddle with the seasonings to suit your taste, spice cabinet, and sweet tooth. One recommendation: I started adding fennel seeds after seeing a Pakistani take on chai in
The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook, and urge you to do the same, even if you think you don't like fennel seeds. Although I'm not normally a fan of their licoricey overtones, here they add a subtle edge that really completes the flavor.

yields 4 small servings

4 cups water
4 slices ginger
18 cardamom pods, crushed
8 cloves
1 heaping tsp fennel seeds
12 black peppercorns
1" stick cinnamon (about half a standard stick)
2-3 Tbsp sugar
3-4 teabags
1 cup milk, or milk alternative

Combine the water, ginger, cardamom, cloves, fennel, peppercorns and cinnamon in a pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes. The liquid should reduce and darken. Add 2 tablespoons of the sugar, and 3 of the tea bags, and simmer until the tea steeps. Taste, and add more sugar or tea if needed (this will be diluted by milk, so you're aiming for a strongly-flavored concentrate). Pour through a strainer to remove the spices, and return to the pot. Add the milk, bring to a simmer, and serve.


  1. I still miss Coffee People. It was the coffee joint of my high school years.

  2. They were great. I still expect to see them every time I pass the old stand-alone location on MLK...

  3. Love your blog and your photos are amazing! Our boyfriends apparently are auto journalist buddies, which is how I found out about your site. Such a shame your guy is lactose intolerant especially since I have a cheese blog. I think I would just stop eating altogether if I couldn't eat cheese. check it out sometime...

  4. what kind of tea bags do you recommend?

  5. Brenna: I just use standard old orange pekoe-cut tea -- there's so much going on with the spicing in the chai that I don't fuss with any more delicate fancy teas.