Sipping the chai often served in Portland cafés, you might easily think of it as a syrupy, cinnamon-spiked concoction—the subcontinent’s version of a gingerbread latte. But order it in most Indian restaurants, and it is an altogether different beverage—South Asia’s richly seasoned spin on British tea. Authentic versions tend to be delicately balanced, with a complex flavoring that’s perfect for pairing with your curry.
Karim Ahmad, the owner of Bombay Cricket Club, a family-run restaurant on SE Hawthorne Boulevard, jokes that you could fill a phone book with the countless variations. “Each household has their own,” he says, “and everyone is very proud to serve their chai.” Passed down from his grandmother, Ahmad’s own recipe reflects the Kashmiri influence common in his native Punjab. Lightly sweetened and seasoned with clean-tasting cardamom and aromatic saffron from India’s Moghul tradition, the drink has an interplay of sweet, sharp, floral, and rich flavors that seem to evolve with each sip, as the spices settle and your palate teases them apart.
Although Indians will toss back cups of chai on sweltering days, here in Portland it’s especially comforting during the dark and damp winter. “When you’re tired, a good cup of chai feels like a warm blanket all around you,” says Ahmad. “It’s more than delicious—it helps your soul.”