Tea Talks: The Chai Cart

Paawan Kothari, right, with a chaiwalla at one of her chai carts.

If you find a simple sidewalk cart in San Francisco serving up hot cups of chai, there’s a good chance it’s one owned by Paawan Kothari. She started out peddling homemade chai in a bicycle trailer around her SF neighborhood as a hobby, and now owns three carts of this kind in the city.

In the streets of India, chai stalls with the hot brew made from boiled herbs and spices are common. Here in the states, tea and coffee shops or cafes often offer a version made from a concentrate. (Some do brew their own.) While sometimes delicious, these cafe versions are quite different than the just-brewed traditional kinds you would taste in India. “There is no better chai than freshly made chai,” Kothari says. It’s really hard to argue with that as few things are as good as when they are made the day you consume them (maybe stews are better left a day or two?). The former IBM marketing manager shares a few things about her carts and making chai at home.

What makes The Chai Cart’s tea different from other chai?

Our chai is made from scratch, the traditional Indian way, using organic loose black tea, fresh spices and organic whole milk. It is lightly sweetened with just enough sugar to bring out the flavors.

In addition to our signature tea — the popular spicy Masala chai — we serve flavors like Rose chai, Ginger chai, Malt chai, and Pumpkin Spice chai.

How long does it usually take to make traditional chai?

It doesn’t take more than 10 minutes to make a 1 or 2 cups of chai. And chai is best when it is freshly made. Reheating the chai changes it’s flavor, so I would not recommend it.

How far in advance can you make chai?

For the carts, we serve the chai we make for only 4 hours. We brew twice a day. [Our bottled brews] are good for 9 months.

Do you have any tips on how to safely boil the tea base with milk without the milk burning or overflowing in the pot?

We always start with boiling water with the spices. When the water comes to a boil, add the tea, steep for a minute, add the milk and bring to a boil again. For our recipes, we use 2 parts water and 1 part whole milk. Of course, you can change the ratio depending on whether you like less or more milk. By adding the milk at the end, there is no risk of burning the milk. If you reduce the heat after the water comes to a boil, right before adding the tea, the chai will not boil over.

What’s the most rewarding thing about running The Chai Cart?

Without a doubt, the most rewarding thing about running The Chai Cart is the love and appreciation we receive from our customers. More than 75% of our customers are repeat customers who come often and have made us part of their daily life. Knowing our chai brings joy to our customers, is the reason I wake up early every morning.

Do you think you will ever have a brick & mortar shop?

Yes, I would eventually love to open a brick and mortar shop. Ideally, I would love it if we could serve people chai the way they want it — i.e they can customize their order they way they like their chai. And that can only be possible if we brew one cup at a time.


Chai Recipe

If you’d like to try your hand at making chai at home, here’s a recipe we found that whips it up pretty quickly, especially if you keep a few batches of the spice mix on hand. Adapted from petitbleu’s Almost Instant Chai.

Preparing Chai Masala spice mix

Makes 3/4 cup spice mix

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup ground black pepper (about 1/3 cup peppercorns)
  • 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 2 tablespoons ground cinnamon (about four 5-inch cinnamon sticks)
  • 2 tablespoons ground cardamom (about 1/4 cup whole cardamom pods)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cloves (about 18 cloves)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons grated nutmeg (about 1 whole nutmeg)

*Note: Grinding the spices makes the mixture more potent, making the chai more flavorful.

Directions

  1. Grind each spice individually in a spice or coffee grinder. Grind them as finely as possible to avoid pieces of whole spices in your tea.
  2. Sift each spice with a fine-mesh sifter and return any large pieces of spices to the grinder to powder them further.
  3. Combine the ground spices in a bowl and store in an airtight container. Making this mix in advance allows you to boil chai in just a few minutes.

Brewing Chai

Serves 2

Ingredients

  • 1 teaspoon chai masala spice mix
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup whole milk milk (or a dairy substitute)
  • 4 teaspoons black tea, such as Ceylon or Assam
  • 2–4 teaspoons of sugar, or your preferred sweetener to taste

Directions

  1. Bring the water, milk, masala, and tea to a slow simmer. Cover and remove from the heat. Allow to steep for 5 minutes.
  2. Strain carefully into a cup, add sugar and sweeten to taste.