Houston, listen up. If there are two things I know you can appreciate, they're authenticity and heat. That's why we seek out the spiciest samosas in Little India, trek out to the far-away Venezuelan food trucks for perros calientes, make spring pilgrimages to Chinatown to consume 10-pound sacks of Vietnamese crawfish, and argue endlessly over who makes the best bowl of pho. This is why I want you to stop drinking gross, fake chai and try the real stuff.
Te House of Tea
Chai, which simply means "tea" in a collection of various languages, is not the syrupy-sweet, cinnamon-spiced Starbucks drink that tastes like you brewed a bowl of the Autumn Leaves potpourri your mom has in her guest bathroom. Real masala chai is strong, heady, spicy stuff—and I mean spicy—perfect for the bracingly chilly weather we've been experiencing lately.
Masala chai is brewed in a process called decoction, in which loose tea and spices are steeped directly in milk (rather than adding milk to tea brewed in hot water). Real chai isn't made from tea bags or pump-jugs of syrup. Masala chai uses strong black tea—usually Assam—and a blend of spices that can include everything from ginger and cardamom (the base of the traditional masala spice blend) to cinnamon, black pepper, star anise, fennel, cloves, and allspice. Basically, imagine tea flavored with a Chinese five-spice blend, heated up with copious amounts of ginger, given an intense earthy flavor with cardamom, and sweetened with a little brown sugar—that's masala chai.
The best place to try "real" chai in Houston is at Te House of Tea, where owner Connie Lacobie has been educating Houstonians about tea since opening the shop with her husband Kevin in 2006. Te stocks over 130 varieties of tea, from black to green to oolong to white, and also makes tisanes—uncaffeinated herbal teas (which don't actually include tea leaves). But of the dozens of options at Te, it's Connie's chai that I love best.
"The spices mixed in are Connie's own blend," says Kevin of the milky tea that's spiked with a surprising amount of heat. I can taste ginger and cardamom immediately, but the other spices reveal themselves more subtly. Maybe clover and anise? Definitely a pinch of cinnamon, though I'm not sure if it's real cinnamon or cassia. "Connie keeps her particular recipe guarded, so I don't even know it," says Kevin. "But my son does!"
Connie makes her chai the old-fashioned way. "You brew the tea, the spices, and the milk all together in a big pot, skimming the fat occasionally," says Kevin. "It's a traditional process. You'll find many Indian families doing it at home if they have the time." This doesn't mean it's time-consuming, however; it usually only takes a few minutes for a delicious mug of chai to arrive at your table after ordering.
These days, Connie uses Assam tea—a rich, malty tea from northeastern India—although Kevin misses the days when the chai was made with Oothu Tea Estate tea from Tamil Nadu. "That supply has been hard to maintain," says Kevin. "I really enjoyed the smoothness of Oothu."