Chai love: Asheville embraces India’s ancient healing drink

TO A TEA: Barista Nathan Lily makes the chai at Tod's Tasties from scratch. Photo by Cindy Kunst
TO A TEA: Barista Nathan Lily makes the chai at Tod's Tasties from scratch. Photo by Cindy Kunst

When ordering a chai in the Western world, a customer may receive any number of concoctions. A simple black tea with spices is one possibility, but it is significantly more likely that the beverage will be prepared with a powdered mix of sugar and corn syrup solids, with tea nowhere to be seen on the ingredient list. Fortunately for Asheville residents, local businesses are taking the making of chai back to the basics.

The history of chai tea can be traced back more than 5,000 years to India, where the word chai translates as the Hindi word for tea. In India, family recipes for masala chai (or spiced tea) are passed down through generations. Although recipes for chai can vary significantly, masala chai traditionally refers to a black tea, generally of the Assam variety, that is slowly simmered with several or all of the following spices: star anise, cinnamon, fennel, saffron, ginger, clove, cardamom, and peppercorn. The spiced tea is then blended with milk and honey or sugar to create a creamy and soothing infusion. Chai is revered in various parts of the world as a healing beverage due to the restorative medicinal qualities found in many of the spices.

If you are looking for a place in Asheville to try some homemade chai, you are in luck. It’s possible to spend a whole day bouncing from coffee shop to restaurant and back to coffee shop on a self-guided chai tour. And don’t let the summer heat deter you from going nuts on a caffeine-ridden tasting spree; most places are happy to serve their concoctions over ice.

Rick and Laura Telford, owners of Biltmore Coffee Traders, lovingly craft their own chai tea, which is prepared with organic ingredients. “We went with the boxed brands at first but found that they were over-sweet and over-syrupy, then Laura said, ‘I can do this better,’ and she found an organic chai recipe and worked at perfecting it, and it has just turned out to be so much better,” says Rick.

Laura adds, “We were using the boxed kind, and it was so sweet that I couldn’t drink it, so I knew I had to find an alternative. I experimented and I used one of my regular customers as a guinea pig. It took me about a month to perfect it with the right strength so that it was strong enough but not too sweet. I always err on the side of less sweet because you can always add sugar but you can’t take it out. We finally worked it out to the right combination of strength and sweetness and spiciness, and we get compliments all the time.”

Mela Indian restaurant offers a house-made chai that is mixed fresh every morning and is available hot or iced. Customers can add a chai to the all-you-can-eat, made-from-scratch daily lunch buffet for a total price of $12. “It is really popular, and we have had many customers tell us that it is the best chai they have ever had,” says manager Sarah Katzmark.

Tod’s Tasties on Montford Avenue has made its own chai since it opened. When asked why the eatery chose to go with a homemade version rather than using one of the many pre-made options available, manager Chelsea Potter says, “We do everything ourselves. We don’t source out for any of our baked goods — we make our own jam and everything — so chai is something, from the very beginning, that we just decided to make for ourselves.”

Other hot spots serving their own house-crafted chai include Chai Pani, Izzy’s Coffee Den, Posana Café, Kathmandu Café and Dobra Tea House.

Not only are an increasing number of local businesses making their own chai, but those that aren’t are starting to opt for either freshly brewed options or locally made varieties. Chad’s Chai, based in Winston-Salem, provides the chai blend used at Old Europe and Edna’s of Asheville. Filo in East Asheville brews its chai using a tea and spice blend created by SerendipiTea, an organic tea company operating out of New York. Green Sage, Biscuit Head, Clingman’s Cafe, Chocolate Gems, Dynamite Roasting Co., Dripolator, Asheville Coffee Roasters, Hyphen, The Hop and Louise’s Kitchen have all started to carry Appalachai!, a new chai concentrate created by Black Mountain residents Kathryn Ames, Tommy Winant and Joel “Windfox” Boyle.

Boyle and Winant met in the summer of 2012 and bonded between sets at Town Pump Tavern’s Tuesday night open jam session. While chatting over some good local craft brews, they discovered that they both had a love for herbal remedies and natural healing. “I had been making chai almost every day since I learned an Indian friend’s old family recipe,” says Winant via email. “Joel also made chai often, as well as many other medicinal teas, and we decided to fine-tune a recipe that we could share with the public.”

After brewing numerous small batches, for six months, and adding and subtracting gram by gram from Winant’s friend’s family recipe, the team finally tweaked out what is now known as AppalaChai! “When Joel and I eventually got stuck with how to package and create the business officially, Katie came on board and kick-started the operation,” says Winant. AppalaChai! uses 100 percent organically grown ingredients.

 

Biltmore Coffee Traders, 518 Hendersonville Road, 277-9227

Mela Indian Restaurant, 70 N. Lexington Ave. 225-8880

Tod’s Tasties, 102 Montford Ave., 505-3701

 

 

 

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