Recipe Request: Chai Tea

md_6_news-item-pictureLong ago, in another life, I lived in Santa Cruz, and rode my bike to work at a little local organic market called Staff of Life. It was a crunchy place, in a town full of crunchy places. I loved it. It was there I learned a lot about healthy cooking, organic foods, whole foods, cooking with bulk items, and dealing with the smell of patchouli. I was young. It was fun. I used cotton bags before it was vogue. I made some good friends. 

One of the things Staff of Life was known for was making THE most awesome Chai tea. And this was waaaaaay before most people even knew what Chai was- think about 199o. I adored the stuff, and was never without my mug while at work. Of course we all used ceramic mugs, because nevermind Styrofoam, even paper is evil in Santa Cruz. Anyhooo…

While there amid this organic bliss, I worked out the recipe for this amazing chai. It wasn’t really necessary to make it myself until I moved to Seattle for college-  the pot simmering away in my small Capitol Hill apartment brought the warmth and goodness of home to a dreary Seattle morning. 

Two things to know before you make it: Follow the directions. Really. The only thing you can leave out, if you’re a Mo, is the black tea. It will be thick and very strong. That’s good. Most of the commercial- or even restaurant- chai is insipid and too weak. It’s strong because you are going to cut it with milk or soy. It needs to be strong. You will thank me.


I wish I could show you the written recipe- in order not to lose it, I wrote it in big black Sharpie on the inside back cover of my Moosewood Cookbook, then I laminated it. Over the years it’s sunk deep into the paper, like an old tattoo, and you can even see it from the outside now. Not having a camera sucks…

Here’s the cast of characters…

  • A stock pot that will hold a gallon + of water 
  • 1/4 cup green cardamom seed pods, lightly crushed to break open
  • 1/4 cup fresh ginger root, chopped, with skin
  • 1/4 cup cinnamon bark, broken into chips
  • 2 Tbsp whole cloves
  • 1 Tbsp whole black Tellicherry peppercorns
  • 3 star anise 
  • 2 Tbsp loose black tea leaves
  • 1/2 cup honey

Fill your stock pot with one gallon of fresh water. Add everything except the honey and the black tea. Simmer for 45 minutes, uncovered. It needs the time for the spices to release their amazing-ness- but be super careful not to scorch or burn it- a watched pot never boils, and that’s good, you don’t want this to boil. Watch it.

The house will smell amazing. Children and random strangers will follow their noses to your kitchen.

Once you are satisfied that the spices have given up their all, add the honey and loose black tea (or not). Cook for another 15 mintues. If it’s too strong for you, and it will be strong, you can add some water and bring back up to a simmer. Strain entire pot over a sieve or cheesecloth, and discard spent spices.

Serve with frothy milk or soymilk (this one instance where I love soymilk). It will keep in the refrigerator for a while- but it never lasts more than a day in our house.

31 thoughts on “Recipe Request: Chai Tea

  1. Part of me feels intimidated by that recipe, how lame is that! But I think – I know – I shall try it anyway.

    My car broke down once outside that market. Oh, the old days.

  2. Julie, you lived in Santa Cruz too?! Cool! Don’t be intimidated. You can find all the ingredients in the bulk section of whatever natural foods store you have. The hardest to find is usually the green whole cardamom pods. The little seeds will work in a pinch, but the pods are preferred. World Market (Cost Plus) sells them prepackaged in their spice section…

  3. Yum! I got some rubios chai from Trader Joe’s and it was seriously weak, just a slight hint of what it was supposed to taste like. I’ve been craving your recipe ever since. Thanks.

  4. Thank you for two great recipes the last few days! When will you do a mail order package that includes all the ingredients so I don’t even have to get my lazy butt out of the house to go shopping?

  5. So, if I were naughty could I add the black tea?? 🙂

    If I’m drinking this…what proportion of chai tea do I add to milk??? Or vice a versa??

    Is cinnamon bark the same as cinnamon sticks??

    I’m going to Whole Foods tomorrow!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  6. I haven’t had a good Chai in ages, i will have to try your recipe. i always use the soy milk, one cause it taste better, two cause me and lactose don’t hang… thanx mama, this is a “comfort food” for me

  7. okay so if you don’t do the black tea, do you do a non caff tea instead or just not at all? It all sounds so delicious, I have to try it.

  8. I usually just leave it out. It’s the tanin and bitterness that adds anything at all, and other teas just don’t pack that punch.

  9. I was so excited to find this recipe and just made it. It’s so weak though! I don’t understand. Is it possible that my gallon to liter conversion was off (1 gallon = 3.8L)? Any help would be appreciated! sniff sniff.

  10. Erica, I’m so sorry! I’ve never had a batch come out weak- it’s usually sooo strong. Were your spices fresh? Did you let it simmer long enough? Sometimes, if my spices are not as fresh as I’d like, I let it steep overnight. You could cut the water back. Honestly, I don’t know what to tell you, except this recipe is usually fantastic. Good luck. Check back in and let me know if it comes out better.

  11. I made it a few weeks ago and felt it was still kinda weak so the next time I made it I cut back the water a bit and it was much better. Yummy! I also think I didn’t let it simmer long enough the first time, though.

  12. This is what happens when you try and write down a recipe that you use a handful of this, and a handful of that… and then adjust for taste. I’m sorry!! Double all the ingredients except the water!

  13. Looks like a great receipe. I would advise not to simmer the tea for 15 minutes, though. Simmering tea for that long with extract a lot of tannins from the tea. I would make it the way you dscribe, but instead of simmering the tea, take the mixture (sans the tea) off the heat and let the tea simmer for 2-3 minutes before removing, that way you will will get all the great flavor of the tea without adding all the potentially bad stuff.

    • Chris, because I leave out the black tea there isn’t really a risk of the tannins becoming bitter. The cinnamon has some, but not really enough to ruin the pot. But if you were using a handful of tea, I would add it last, after you’ve simmered the cloves, cinnamon, ginger and cardamom. It’s worked for me for years.

  14. When I was 19 (1998) I left my little town of Woodstock NY headed for Cali. I landed in Santa Cruz. It was landing at home plus the ocean and a little size.
    Having grown up in a health food store working after school and on weekends for several years it was the perfect fit when a syncronistic run in with a friend landed me a job in the Deli at the Staff Of Life.
    There, I was introduced to an incredible community of people, some of whom I still consider family, and… That Chai Recipe!
    I had never stopped such a delicious flavor. And like you, always had a mug.
    I used to hover over the magnanimous pot and kvell!
    But I never worked out the recipe.
    When I left Santa Cruz I expected to return.
    The earthquake set me back a bit and I didn’t return for about ten years.

    Now when I visit I am always first to stop at SOL and grab a (yes plastic jug) of it out of the fridge.
    Surprisingly it is the same recipe.
    The building may have changed but the chai remains the same.

    Because your story is so similar to mine. I am going to try this recipe first. It’s the first that popped up. And I am craving THAT masala!
    Funny. Years later on my first trip to India I was fascinated to find the chai nothing like the strength we drink it at in the west.
    I remember it being one cardamom pod and if you were lucky, a little smashed ginger.

    Still just the same… I crave the Sraf Of Life’s Chai–Fit for the Maharani of Jaipur!

    Thanks so much for this one!

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