Warm up a Chilly Morning with Rooibos Chai

A few weeks ago I was still grasping at any surplus from summer that remained within my reach. Now that we’ve officially changed the clocks and the sun is dipping below the horizon around 5:00PM, I’m switching to fall mode. Waking up to chillier temperatures means that smoothies are giving way to more warming breakfasts, which usually include a hot beverage. While most Americans rely on coffee to get their wheels in motion each morning, I prefer the cacao bean to the coffee bean or even better, skip the beans altogether and brew a fresh cup of chai.

rooibos chai

When it’s cold outside, I’ve got the month of chai

Traditional Masala Chai is made with black tea such as Assam. I love the strong flavor of Assam, but I’m not a big fan of the caffeine. Rooibos is a South African tea that is naturally caffeine free with a mild, fruity flavor that pairs well with chai spices.

I have had good results using soy and hemp milk in chai, especially the whiter soy milks such as Silk and Earth Balance. Other soy milk such as Edensoy and Westsoy can sometimes curdle, as can rice milk.The key to brewing a good cup of chai is time. Not the actual prep time, which is not more than 10 minutes, but time to allow the tea and spices to infuse the brew with their flavors. If you’re the type of person who wakes up early, reads the paper and runs a half marathon before heading to work, making chai won’t present any problem. If you’re the jump out of bed and out the door in five minutes type, then you’re probably better off brewing your chai the night before and putting it in a thermos that you can grab as you rush out.

To me, the biggest variable in the flavor of this chai is the ginger. I like the bite that comes from ginger, so I use a 3/4 inch piece. If you prefer a more subtle ginger flavor, then a one inch or smaller piece is your best bet. You could even leave it out altogether, for a very mildly flavored chai.

chai spices

Don’t use ground spices. Whole cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods, cloves and black peppercorns are the key to a great cup of chai

All that spice does require a good dose of sweetener. Sugar and agave both work, but my preference is Sucanat. Unlike sugar, which is neutral and adds sweetness but no flavor, Sucanat adds a bit of flavor along with the sweetness that complements the spiciness of chai. I don’t recommend stevia. I’ve tried both liquid and powdered stevia and both add an unpleasant aftertaste. No matter which sweetener you end up using, be prepared to use plenty of it.The cinnamon sticks and cardamom can be crushed with the flat side of a chef’s knife, a mallet or if you want to crush your counter along with your spices, a sledgehammer. A fine mesh strainer is essential. Using any other strainer will most likely leave small bits of tea leaves and spices floating in your tea.

If you don’t want to brew a fresh batch every day, you can double or triple the recipe, store it in the refrigerator for several days and heat up a cup at anytime.

Rooibos Chai
Makes one large serving and can be multiplied for the number of additional servings desired.

1-1/3 cups water
1 cinnamon stick, crushed
10 cardamom pods, crushed
10 cloves
10 black peppercorns
1 piece of ginger 1/2”-3/4” long, peeled and sliced
2/3 cup soy or hemp milk
1 teaspoon loose rooibos tea
4-7 teaspoons (more or less) Sucanat or other sweetener

Place water cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, peppercorns and ginger in a saucepan on high heat and bring to a boil.

Add milk, cover and lower heat to simmer for one hour. (Be sure to use a very low temperature or a large pan so the tea doesn’t boil over.)

Remove from heat and add tea. Let steep covered for 10-15 minutes.

Strain tea through a fine mesh strainer. Add sweetener and serve.