When my partner decided to go vegan, giving up chai was his biggest hurdle.
Amrik is a boy who loves his chai. Very early in our relationship, he taught me how to make the spiced, milky tea. I honestly believe that if I hadn’t been an apt pupil, he would have shown me the door, teacup in hand.
It wasn’t unusual for us to make two or even three pots of chai a day.
Neither of us expected chai to be a stumbling block on the path to veganism. The prevalent advice out there is, “Just replace the milk with soy, rice, or almond milk!” Simple, right?
Our first attempts were with soy milk. We quickly found that most soy milks – especially refrigerated soy milks, like Silk, 8th Continent, Harris Teeter or Whole Foods store brand – take on an unpleasant, sharp taste when heated in tea. Perhaps it’s the heat, perhaps it’s the tannins in the tea.
“Sweet Mother of Pearl,” I spluttered upon tasting that first cup of vegan chai.
“This makes my throat hurt,” Amrik moaned.
Even our dog Scruffy wouldn’t touch it.
Next, we tried rice milk, which has a much milder taste and seems to withstand heat better. However, rice milk has a very thin texture.
“I may as well be drinking water,” Amrik pouted.
Almond milk (especially Almond Breeze) was actually quite tasty but it changed the flavor of the chai completely.
“It’s good … but it’s not chai …” Amrik observed.
“Coconut milk?” I suggested in desperation.
“Don’t even think about it.”
So for weeks Amrik mourned his beloved chai. But I was determined. I had recently figured out how to make homemade vegan yogurt and I was feeling invincible. I continued to experiment and made the following discoveries:
- Faux milk with a little fat content works best (about 4 g fat per 8 oz). Otherwise, the chai will be too thin and watery.
- Soy milks in tetra packs work well, like West Soy and Soy Dream. I was using soy milk in tetra packs to make yogurt and decided to try them in chai. To my great delight, they held up very well in the heat – no separating/curdling, no weird metallic taste, no sore feeling in the back of the throat. Our favorite for chai is Soy Dream.
- Use slightly more spice. We like a fairly simple cup of chai, and sometimes tossing in an extra clove or cardamom pod helps.
- Do NOT boil the milk with the tea. I know, this runs counter to the very essence and soul of chai. But while boiling milk for long periods results in a rich, creamy chai, boiling soy milk for any length of time at all results in – well, a cup of chai that even a Jack Russell won’t drink. Instead, boil the tea with the sugar and spices for at least 5 minutes; then add the milk and continue heating just until hot and beginning to get bubbly. DO NOT let the soy milk come to a boil!
Here’s my recipe for the perfect vegan cup of chai:
Ingredients (For Two Mugs)
- Three teabags of Plain Black Tea (we use Lipton). Remove paper and strings.
- Two to Three Cloves
- Two to Three Green Cardamom Pods, cracked
- Four Tablespoons Sugar
- 1/2 to 1 Cup Faux Milk
- Place the teabags, cloves, cardamom, and sugar in a small pot.
- Add three cups water. (I usually measure “cups” by whatever cup or mug I’ll be drinking from.)
- Bring to a boil and boil for about 5 minutes. (The water level in the pot will go down; that’s fine.)
- Add 1/2 to 1 cup faux milk. Watch the pot carefully; you want to remove it from the heat as soon as the chai heats up again and starts bubbling. Do NOT let the chai come to a boil again.
- Remove tea bags, cardamom pods, and cloves. (Since I don’t use loose tea or small spices, there is no need to strain.)
- Pour into cups and enjoy!
Keep in mind chai is an art, not an exact science. Experiment and adjust to suit your own personal taste. Amrik likes his chai very milky; I like mine a little less so. Sugar really brings out the spices, so I do recommend using sugar instead of an artificial sweetener. But for variety you can try jaggery, an Indian unrefined sugar that’s similar to brown sugar. Sometimes, if I’m making chai just for myself, I’ll add a small piece of cinnamon stick.
One last piece of advice – chai means tea, so please refer to this drink as chai or masala chai (spice tea). Saying, “Chai Tea,” is the same as saying “Tea Tea.” It’s incredibly annoying to some people – especially before their first morning cup of chai!