The first day of Spring has come and gone, chased by a final (…probably) snow storm, reminding us that winter takes its time in leaving Massachusetts. At the first hint of warm weather we put away our woolens and head outdoors; the days may be sunny and warm, but the evenings can still be raw and bone-chilling. This makes for a perfect maple syrup season (ooh, foreshadowing, possibly?) but can leave many of us feeling cranky and uncomfortable. That’s why I keep a mason jar full of chai concentrate (decoction) in my fridge, ready to blend in a mug of warm milk. (I even froth mine with a french press before adding the concentrate, which makes it feel super indulgent.) The herbs I use stimulate blood flow, aid in digestion, and have anti-bacterial properties to help you keep away those last minute colds, too.
Making a decoction (or concentrate) is very similar to making a quick infusion (like when we make a cup of tea). Rather than pouring hot water over herbs and doing a quick steep, we simmer them together in a pot until the water has reduced in volume by about half. Not only does this result in a stronger flavor, but it allows us to get all that tougher roots (astragalus) and barks (cinnamon) have to offer, in a way that a quick steep couldn’t.
Watching people bundle back up in the nighttime chill (after a nearly 70 degreen day!) as I sip my own mug of spicy chai made me want to share my recipe, which has been adapted from many other recipes over several years:
‘Warm Me Up’ Chai Decoction (Concentrate)
2-3 cups of concentrate
24 cardamom pods
18 whole allspice
9 inches cinnamon bark
3 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
3 teaspoon whole cloves
3 inches piece fresh ginger root
3 inches dried astragalus root
4-6 tablespoons of regular or decaf black tea OR red rooibos tea OR no tea at all.
3 -4 cup water
2 tablespoons honey or more to taste (maple syrup may be used)
1. Coarsely crush all spices in a mortar and pestle, or by wrapping in a tea towel and crushing with a rolling pin.
2. Combine crushed spices and water, and bring to a boil, with the lid on (for now leaving out the black tea, or other tea, if using).
3. Reduce to a simmer for 30-90 minutes, with the lid off. (The amount of time needed will vary
4. You have two options here: You can remove the pot from heat and steep as long as you’d like (overnight, even), to get a spicier concentrate, omitting or adding black tea later -OR- you can remove from heat and add black or other tea now, steeping for 5-10 minutes.
5. Strain all herbs through a sieve lined with a cheesecloth or cotton muslin, and decant in to a mason jar with a lid. Add desired amount of honey or maple syrup. Store in the fridge for longest shelf-life
6. When you’re ready for a cup of chai, heat a cup of milk on the stove, bringing to a quick boil (keep an eye on it! It can boil over quickly!) Optional: Pour milk in a french press, and plunge carefully but quickly, until milk is light and foamy. (It will at least double in volume, keep this in mind, and make sure the spout side is turned away from you so you don’t get burnt.)
7. Pour 1/3 cup of concentrate in a mug, top with frothed milk, and enjoy the warmth.
Experiment! This is how I like my chai, but you can add any number of spices and herbs to this: fennel, anise, orange or lemon peel, cacao…
Though these organic herbs are not local, they can be purchased in an ethical, sustainable way which supports small farmers in countries financially dependent on exports.[ For more information on buying spices and herbs in bulk, check out www.acadiaherbals.com. Acadia Herbs is a well-stocked herb shop in downtown Northampton, MA, with a friendly, knowledgeable owner and staff ready to answer any questions. ]