I was distinctly unimpressed by my first ever sip of true, authentic Indian chai. In fact, I’d say my reaction bordered on revulsion. As someone whose journey in tea drinking had progressed from milky teenage cups of builder’s tea, through to Earl Grey with a slice of lemon, through to all sorts of exotic, loose leaf brews from the corner of the globe drunk strictly unadulterated – heaven forbid milk or sugar should make it anywhere near the teapot – I was unprepared for the assault on my tastebuds mounted by my first real chai, sipped in the ferocious sun atop a roof terrace in Delhi.
Milky, heady with spice and oh so, so sweet, it tasted like something I’d been weaned off as a child for good reason. The colour was that of a pale Rich Tea biscuit, a far cry from the coppers, pale greens and dark burgundies I was used to pouring from my morning teapot. It was also a million miles away from what passes for ‘chai tea’ in the UK, always a slightly odd term to use since it technically means ‘tea tea’, chai being the catch-all term for tea in India. I admitted defeat, unable to finish the milky concoction, and tried to mask my considerable disappointment that this iconic Indian experience had not lived up to expectations.
But then something happened. I found myself on a twenty-hour overnight train from Delhi to Jaisalmer. Having passed the evening as best I could – mindful colouring books, music, attempting to dissect a foot-long papaya using an inch-long craft knife – I settled down in my tiny, cramped bunk for a night of broken sleep as the train swayed, stopped, rattled, and people passed to and fro, turning on the lights that happened to be placed conveniently right above my face. Needless to say, I ‘woke up’ the following morning feeling somewhat fragile, sticky in spite of the air conditioning, cramped and restless from nearly an entire day on the rails.
And then I heard the sound that every traveller around India quickly comes to associate with paradise: ‘Chaiiii, chaiiii, chaiiiii’. Through the carriage he came, swinging his giant samovars of piping hot liquid as though they were made of cotton wool, balancing a Pisa-esque tower of stacked paper cups in one arm and holding his fragrant burden with the other. Thirsty, tired and, ultimately, bored, I parted with ten rupees – about 10p – in exchange for a shot-glass sized cup of steaming hot chai. Here goes nothing, I thought, before raising it to my lips.
From that moment, I was hooked. No, I don’t normally take milk or sugar in my tea. But I’m not normally on a seven-week trip around one of the hottest countries in the world during one of the hottest summers in recent memory, spending long days under the burning sun, tramping around temples and shrines and bazaars on dusty, tired feet, passing nights in cramped carriages and all the while attempting to keep my wits about me and bearing in mind all the horror stories I’ve ever heard about lone women travelling in India.
In the end, the most horrifying thing that happened to me was that I’d wasted a good three or four days without any chai before I came to finally appreciate its true beauty. It is a comforting hug, a pat on the back, an energising, motivational cheer all at once, in drinkable form. Caffeine, sugar and spice: all the fortitude you need, in a cup.
Context is key, however. Back home, I still take my tea without milk or sugar. That sweet, cosseting beverage so beloved during sweaty afternoons in Kerala or arid mornings striding through the deserts of Rajasthan seems out of place sipped at my desk in Denmark. Not to mention the fact that I’d certainly get fat and lose all my teeth if I continued to drink it without the Indian heat and my chaotic travel schedule to burn the calories. Sometimes, though, in the middle of the afternoon, I still crave that hot, spicy hit.
When Bluebird Tea announced the launch of their new ‘sticky chai’, I was highly intrigued. A revolutionary chai with a genius idea behind it, this blend uses black tea mixed with traditional chai spices, but binds the lot together with local Brighton raw honey. Being a natural preservative, the honey locks in the flavour of the tea and spices, giving that freshly ground taste every time. I was worried that it might taste too sweet, but it’s perfectly balanced; the honey is undetectable except for adding a slightly heightened flavour to the spices. You can add milk and extra sugar for that truly authentic chai taste, but I also love this pure and unadulterated, a perfect marriage of strong, slightly bitter black tea and fragrant, warming spice that almost takes me back to the magical chaos of India.
This bread takes that marriage to the next level, in sliceable, butter-able form. It is, essentially, a giant hot cross bun, but extra heavy on the candied peel whose citrus tang complements the Indian spices perfectly. The enriched dough is made with milk infused with sticky chai, giving it a lovely golden colour and beautiful aromatic flavour. It’s a very easy dough to put together if you have an electric mixer, which I’d recommend as it’s also a fiendishly sticky dough. I would also recommend using homemade or good quality candied peel, the kind that you buy in strips rather than small pieces, as it’s one of the star ingredients here so the quality really does shine through. However, you could easily swap in your favourite dried fruits – apricots, cranberries and cherries would all work beautifully here, too.
I love this toasted, smothered in butter and paired with a good strong cup of chai or Earl Grey. If only I’d had a piece of this to keep me going during those long overnight trains.
Sticky chai spiced candied citrus bread (makes 1 large loaf):
- 160ml whole milk, plus a little extra for brushing
- 2 tbsp Bluebird Tea Sticky Chai (or other loose-leaf chai tea)
- 350g strong white bread flour
- 150g spelt or wholemeal flour
- 10g salt
- 10g instant yeast or 25g fresh yeast, crumbled
- 40g unsalted butter, softened
- 50g golden caster sugar
- 3 medium eggs, lightly beaten
- 150ml water
- 200g mixed candied peel (homemade is best, or the kind you can buy in whole strips rather than tiny cubes), chopped into 1cm pieces
- 100g sultanas
- 2 tbsp sesame seeds
Put the milk in a small saucepan and heat gently until it just starts to boil. Add the chai and stir for a minute or so, then remove from the heat and leave to cool to body temperature – if it is too hot it will kill the yeast, so be patient. When the milk has cooled enough, strain out the chai through a sieve and discard (keep the infused milk!)
Put the flours in the bowl of an electric stand mixer. Add the salt to one side of the bowl and the yeast to the other. Add the butter, sugar, eggs and infused milk, plus half the water, then begin to mix on a slow speed. You may need to add more water – continue to mix until you have a sticky dough, then mix for 5-10 minutes until the dough becomes more elastic and soft. If it’s too sticky, add a little more flour. Add the candied peel and sultanas and mix again for a couple of minutes until everything is combined.
Cover the bowl with a tea towel and leave to rise until doubled in size – around 1-3 hours, depending on the warmth of your kitchen. You can also do this in the fridge overnight for a slow rise.
When the dough has doubled in size, knead it briefly on a floured work surface to knock out all the air. Divide the dough into three equal pieces and roll each into a long sausage about 1.5 to 2 inches wide.
Line a baking tray with baking parchment. Arrange the three strands of dough vertically on the tray in front of you (turn the tray so it’s vertical too, and there’s enough space!), squish them together at the top, then plait them all the way down (drape the left strand over the middle, then the right strand over the middle, then repeat this until all the dough is plaited). Squish the bottom ends together too and tuck neatly under the loaf.
Leave the loaf to rise again in a warm place until doubled in size. Pre-heat the oven to 200C.
Brush the loaf lightly with the remaining milk and sprinkle with the sesame seeds. Bake for 20-30 minutes, or until the loaf is golden and sounds hollow when tapped on the base. Cool on a wire rack before devouring with lots of butter. It freezes well and is also excellent toasted.