I have had two wonderful cups of chai tea in my life. The first was years ago at a tiny convenience store in Half Moon Bay, California, where the proprietor had a big sign in the window proclaiming "BEST CHAI ON EARTH!" He wasn't lying. The second was at my friend Ariane Anthony's recent dinner party, where she made a delicious Indian feast followed by spicy, homemade chai.
My criteria for a good cup of chai is that it be strong, flavorful, and that the tea and spices be steeped in the milk. (If you make the tea and add the milk later, you'll find that your chai will lack richness and depth of flavor.) It should taste like dessert, but not be too sugary - aim for a similar sweetness to a good quality vanilla ice cream. Once you've had a "real" chai, you'll never go back to those weak coffee shop "chai lattes"!
Ariane got her recipe years ago from a fellow yoga practitioner, and was kind enough to share it with me. Like all my favorite traditional recipes, it passed to Ariane by word of mouth, and she has never written it down before now, because it requires only seven ingredients. It's easy to adjust to your personal tastes; you simply can't go wrong with these seven things, and you can change the quantity to your needs. The directions were developed through Ariane's own trial and error.
For about 6 cups of chai, you will need:
3 cups water
2 inches of fresh ginger root, peeled and thinly sliced
1-2 rounded tablespoons whole green cardamom pods, lightly crushed with the side of a large knife to help release their flavor
1-2 10-inch long cinnamon sticks, broken into pieces (if you can't find long sticks, use several shorter ones)
6 tea bags of a strong black tea, or 6 rounded teaspoons of loose tea
1 quart of milk (I like whole for its creaminess, but you can use whatever you prefer)
4 tablespoons sugar
In a large, heavy-bottomed sauce pan with a lid, bring your water and spices to a boil. Add the tea bags or loose tea, reduce the heat to low, put the cover on, and simmer for at least 15 minutes. The longer you simmer, the more intense the flavor will be. Add the milk and the sugar and set covered over very low heat for another 15 minutes. Keep an eye on the heat - milk tends to rise high if it boils. You may remove the cover if you're having trouble keeping the temperature low enough. You don't want to boil the milk, but it's ok it it forms a skin; you'll be straining the chai later to remove the spices.
Taste, adjusting the sugar if necessary. Strain through a fine sieve (you may have to do this more than once to remove any skin of spices and milk proteins, especially if you reheat) and serve hot with a cinnamon stick in the cup, or chill in the fridge and serve iced.