On sunny SF days, 90% of Mission hipsters can be found, fixie bike and foofy dog in tow, lounging on a blanket in Dolores Park, drinking PBR from a can, iPod earphones firmly in place, skinny jeans cuffed just so. The rest of us find a tiny square of grass among the vintage dresses and shaggy hairdos, roll up our shamefully bootcut pants, and perhaps strum a few ukulele chords in the sun.
The weather never lasts long, though, and sooner or later a vicious wind blows in, scattering the block-long line at Bi-Rite creamery. (Just kidding! Bi-Rite groupies wouldn't let a little thing like freezing-cold weather deter them from their mission.) At times like these, nothing beats a steamy mug of masala chai from Samovar, creamy with organic milk, lightly sweetened with handmade palm sugar.
More ironic than a hipster in a 'Vote McCain' t-shirt, a cup of said chai, which disappears all too soon, forcing you from the pampering haven of soothing music and heavenly smells and back into the squall, costs about the same as two giant meals of rice and dal would in India. The ingredients are so inexpensive; a dollar or two worth of spices, tea, milk and sugar get you six Samovar-sized servings in the comfort of your own home.
As an added bonus, the simmering spices perfume your house, making your toes tingle in anticipation of the spicy sips to come. You can use any sweetener or milk you like, and vary the spices to your taste. Cloud it up with whatever dairy, or non-, you like, such as vanilla-maple almond milk. I've made this tea with english breakfast, ginger pu-erh, and rooibos teas; all produce great chais of varying flavors and colors. You can also use green tea, as in the Kashmiri tradition.
Chai is the perfect Bojon treat, since it takes little effort to make and simmers for a long time on the stove. A big batch can be refrigerated, providing tasty morning bevvies for the whole week. It is also good chilled, weather permitting, of course.
Here is my version, adapted from Sweet!, an aptly titled book by Mani Niall featuring loads of recipes made with all sorts of natural sweeteners. The original calls for jaggery, an unrefined Indian sugar. If you use that, you are much more hip than I. But do me a favor: never utter the words 'chai' and 'latte' in the same sentence.
Bojon Masala Chai
Makes six 1-cup servings
For an extra-spicy variation, you can cover and steep the spices for up to 2 hours after they've simmered for 30 minutes. Reheat the infused water, add the tea, and proceed with the recipe. I recommend using ceylon (or "true") cinnamon here – they have a more subtle, fruity flavor that lets the other spices shine, whereas the cassia varieties tend to take over more.
5 - 3" cinnamon sticks (preferably ceylon)
10 cardamom pods, lightly crushed
3" piece of fresh ginger, sliced into coins
1/2 of a vanilla bean
3 whole cloves
3 allspice berries
2-3 tablespoons black (or green or rooibos) tea
3 tablespoons sweetener (honey, agave, jaggery and sugar all work)
1 1/2 cups milk or milk substitute (such as almond or coconut milk)
In a large saucepan, combine all of the spices with 6 cups of water. Bring to a bare simmer, reduce the heat, and cook at a bare simmer for 30 minutes. Turn off the heat, add the tea, and let steep for 10 minutes. Add the sweetener and milk and warm over low heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a large pitcher or measuring cup.
Drink hot, or cool and store in the fridge for up to a week. Warm as needed, or drink chilled.