Customize your chai for medicinal benefits


When autumn rolls around–and it finally feels like autumn, even here in inland southern California where temps are still balmy, now that it’s dark by 5:00–my thoughts turn to chai.

I have a hard time making myself drink herbal infusions because I’m just not a hot beverage drinker. If it can be iced, ok…but for some reason I have found my herbal infusions don’t last as long as black tea, so it hasn’t worked for me to just make a big jug of infusion. It seems it has to be done a cup at a time, and then it’s all warm… You get where I’m going with this. I struggle with an infusion aversion.

But when it gets cooler and darker, warm beverages start seeming more appealing, especially when they are filled with delicious carminative spices. And I’m guessing I’m not the only one, to judge by the avalanche of pumpkin-spiced this-and-that. “Pumpkin spice,” of course, has no pumpkin in it, but the warming spices that go in pumpkin pie–nutmeg, allspice, ginger, and cinnamon. Three of those are also in chai masala, a.k.a., chai spice blend, a.k.a. chai although it’s incorrect to call it that. (Chai actually means “tea,” that is, the infusion of Camellia sinensis leaves. Therefore “chai tea” is redundant.)

So anyway, chai is delicious and warming, and good for the digestion because of all the carminative spices–but the best thing about it is that it accomodates the addition of your own favorite medicinal herbs. The intense flavor of the spices will blend with and even mask the taste of milder flavored additions (depending on quantities). This makes it a great way to slip in some extra immune-boosting medicine in time for cold and flu season.

Here’s a recipe from Rosalee de la Forêt that incorporates astragalus, reishi, and codonopsis.

Here is a recipe with turmeric.

Here’s one with several different medicinal herbs.

And here is one with chaga mushroom.

I have made chai with astragalus and eleuthero, and now I use ashwagandha and astragalus.

Here is my favorite recipe for a traditional Indian chai masala. It consists of ginger, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, and black pepper. The quantities given are large–recently I made about 3 oz of chai masala using only 10% of these amounts. (I prefer to work with smaller quantities so the spices don’t lose their oomph but if you have more than one person drinking chai, you might wish to make a bigger batch.) This mix has a lot of black pepper, which makes the chai pleasantly spicy, but you could reduce the amount if you are really sensitive to spice. I would still leave some in though, because black pepper helps you better assimilate the nutrients in your food (or chai).

Here’s some interesting trivia from the author of this chai masala recipe:

Warning–Nerdy science note:  The flavors that make spices taste delicious are all aromatic compounds.  Aromatic compounds are made of molecules that contain a structure known as a benzene ring, meaning they dissolve best in alcohols or fats.  You may have notices this when making drinks, that adding a twist of lemon to a martini adds significantly more flavor in a shorter amount of time than adding a twist of flavor to a glass of water.  Similarly, if you make this chai with a non-fat milk, you won’t extract as many flavors from the spices as if you make it with a milk that has some fat.  So do your spices a flavor, and don’t make this with skim milk.  Nerdy science note done.

Once again, it’s milk-in-first FTW. But you can omit the milk if you have your reasons.

I just use plain old black tea for my chai. Something like Lipton, PG Tips, Yorkshire Tea, or Irish Breakfast (I find English Breakfast to be a bit anemic). Even better, you could use a nice organic tea, but for a traditional chai taste it should be strong, black, and simple, unadorned with anything frou-frou like bergamot oil.

Some ideas for herbs you might add to your chai (besides those mentioned above) are: slippery elm (this is good for people who are constitutionally dry and cold, as are the warming spices), rose petals (often added to tea in Iran…where it is also called chai by the way) or rose water, orange or lemon peel or rosehips (for a Vitamin C boost), licorice root, vanilla, cacao/cocoa (yum), mint, tulsi, fennel, even cannabis. The options really are endless and just depend on your constitution and health, what you want to achieve (tonic? adaptogen? relaxant? etc.), and what flavors you like. I pre-mixed my chai masala separately from any medicinals I plan to add. That way I can vary the formula each time if I want.

So, what quantities of herbs to add? The answer, as always, is “it depends.” But the herbs and spices we are dealing with here are all used as, or in, food. Thus they are very safe and can be consumed in pretty large quantities. Do make sure that if you are pregnant the medicinal herb(s) you add are safe. Consult a clinical herbalist or doctor if in doubt. Bear in mind that the amount of chai masala you would add to a single cup of chai is about 1/4 tsp, and I would add at least that much medicinal herb (likely quite a bit more). My advice is, add as much medicinal herb as you can while still enjoying the taste and consistency and not having any unpleasant sensations (which, if there were going to be any, would likely be some mild nausea). This is one experiment where even your “failures” are likely to be delicious. And remember that if you’re measuring by volume, you’ll add more of an herb if it’s in a “fluffy” form–for example, if you were making a pint of chai you could throw in a whole heaping handful of shredded slippery elm bark, vs. perhaps a tablespoon of powdered bark. If you measure by weight you don’t have to worry about this issue. You can also check out other recipes and see how much medicinal herb their authors added, to get a guideline.

ADDENDUM: I guess great minds think alike. I just noticed that Worts and Cunning Apothecary put up their own medicinal chai recipe today! The recipe is part of the Lunar Apothecary course, and is timed for the current full moon, which is in Taurus. Taurus is the sign that rules nourishment in all its forms and comfort, so a chai recipe is perfectly timed. I wish I’d thought of that!


5 thoughts on “Customize your chai for medicinal benefits

  1. I am always needing a little bit of energy so I’d like to maybe add some astragalus and maca (would that even taste good?). I’ve never purchased astragalus. Would you use a powder? The actual root? I like to make chai out of rooibos tea so that u can drink it in the evening.

    • Hi Lissa Ann,

      Sorry, I didn’t see your comment until now for some reason. I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t add maca. Go for it! I personally haven’t tried that but start with a small amount and if it still tastes good, add a little more next time. As for astragalus, I like to get it in slices. They are about the size of tongue depressors but thinner. It makes it easy to pull out of the tea at the end. To me, astragalus smells a bit like horseradish but without the bite, or maybe a bit like parsnips, and if you add a whole lot at once, it will taste like that too. It’s definitely a “rooty” taste. But if you throw in say 3 slices or so, it adds a touch of sweetness without a definable un-chai-like taste. I think it’s one of the easier herbs to “sneak in.” Of course your mileage may vary, but I put it in everything these days. If I’m making a savory soup or stew, I put more in because the astragalus won’t overbalance the strong flavors. If I’m making something sweetish, I use a bit less.

      That’s a great idea about rooibos–I didn’t even think of that. In fact I may just steal that idea. 🙂

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