"Chai tea" flavors everything from lattes to cupcakes, chocolate bars and energy bars

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IN MY HIPPY youth, I waited tables at the Good Earth restaurant in sunny Santa Barbara. That California-based health-food chain’s signature spiced chai was brewed in vast quantities and perfumed the air so heavily that, after a hard day’s work, my company-issued “tea”-shirt smelled more like potpourri than perspiration.

I next encountered chai in Alaska, courtesy of a local yogi. “My name is Nirvair, it rhymes with clean air,” said the bearded man dressed in white from turban to ankle. I remember exactly nothing about the yoga postures he taught, but still recall the “yogi tea” recipe he shared — a milky mix of spice-infused water, fresh ginger and a scant amount of black tea. Boiled nearly an hour until reduced by half, that honey-sweetened elixir helped me through many cold, dark Alaska winters.

Chai fell off my radar once I moved to coffee-fueled Seattle — if you don’t count the Persian boyfriend who’d ask, “Chai-ee, mikhori?” (Would you like some tea?) He poured a tannic brew served with sugar cubes, instructing me to clutch a cube between my teeth as I sipped. He also used the word in the widest sense: In Iran, as in many parts of the globe, “chai” simply means “tea.”

Decades later, “chai tea” flavors everything from lattes (a Starbucks best-seller, introduced in 1997) to cupcakes (thank you, Martha Stewart), chocolate bars (Theo) and energy bars (Luna). Check out the tea aisle at QFC and you’ll find cartons of Oregon Chai concentrate sharing the shelves with Good Earth chai tea bags.

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All of this gave me an idea: Why not turn over a new leaf and make yourself a big mug-full of spiced chai? It’s easy and aromatherapeutic. If you’ve got a well-stocked kitchen, you may not even have to go to the store, where the ingredients are readily available — assuming you can settle on exactly which ingredients are necessary.

“For 1 billion Indians, there are 20,000 chai variations,” posits PCC Indian-cooking instructor Archana Verma, a Punjabi who grew up 300 miles from Delhi. “The concept of masala chai — spiced tea — came from the northern India states of Kashmir and Punjab.” There, she explains, the winters are the coldest, stone floors are the norm, and central heating is a luxury, “so people bundle up and sip hot drinks that warm them from the inside.”

Those “warming spices” classically include cardamom, black pepper, cinnamon and cloves, though what you put in or leave out is all about familial custom and personal preference. For Verma, cinnamon and peppercorns prove too strong, and because fennel seed is a favorite, she adds it. You might purchase pre-ground masala powder from an Indian grocer (she does), or whole chai-spice blends with add-ins like star anise or dried orange peel, available at Seattle’s World Spice Merchants (I have). Before you do, though, try this simple recipe, then tailor it to your taste.

Nancy Leson is The Seattle Times’ food writer. Reach her at nleson@seattletimes.com. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific NW magazine staff photographer.

Winter’s Day Masala Chai

Makes 1 big mug

1 cup water

2 cardamom pods

2 whole cloves

2 black peppercorns

1-inch cinnamon stick

1 slice fresh ginger (about the size of a quarter)

1 heaping teaspoon black, loose-leaf tea*

1/2 cup milk

In a medium saucepan, bring to a boil the water, cardamom, cloves, peppercorns, cinnamon and ginger. Add in the tea and boil 3 minutes. Add the milk, return to a boil, then turn off the heat. Let steep 2 minutes. Strain into a mug. Sweeten to taste with sugar or honey.

*Try Assam or Keemun

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