At many American coffee shops, chai is a muddle of spices, hot milk and an immoderate amount of sugar. When New York University food studies professor Krishnendu Ray, author of The Ethnic Restaurateur, tasted Starbucks’ version in the company of a Guardian reporter, he described it as a cloying caricature of Indian food.
“I never had tea in India with all those spices mixed together,” he said.
Neither did Melissa Hull, who traveled the country for a few years, starting with a 2013 stay in Goa. Hull became infatuated with the black tea flavored by ginger or cardamom or fennel, depending on the region and the seller’s family traditions.
“Even within a small town, you might have two or three stands that have their own different recipe,” she said. “People get very attached to their chai.”
In Hull’s case, the attachment was so strong that she found she couldn’t forgive what U.S. cafes pass off as the drink. She started making her own chai. And when she took a job at the newly-opened Broom Wagon Coffee in West Ashley, she offered to do the same for the shop.
“They were using a kind of base concentrate that you can purchase online and mix with milk,” she said. “I was like, ‘you know, we can probably have something we can adjust to get the flavors where we want.’ ”
Concentrate is a common chai shortcut: Revelator Coffee on Upper King Street, for example, uses Dona Chai. Made in Brooklyn, N.Y., the concentrate is generally well regarded. But cafes also turn to dry loose leaf blends seasoned with ground spices.
Hull instead starts with whole spices, which she believes is the secret to quality chai.
“Ours maybe has a little bit more ginger and peppercorn, but we also use cinnamon and clove,” she said.
And if customers want sugar, it’s up to them to add it.