In Hindi, as in many languages, chai simply means tea. But in Western countries it means a more-or-less assertively spiced black tea, usually sweetened and served with milk. When coffee shops entered my life in college and graduate school, I became a Chai latte devotee. I prefer Chai that is warmly, but not excessively, spiced, and gently sweetened. I don’t want to feel like I’ve been punched in the face by ginger or cloves, nor do I want to feel like I’m drinking sweetened condensed milk straight from the can. Sweetness is necessary to balance the spices and, I find, allow me to taste them rather than feeling as though my tongue is coated with an almost dusty sensation of pungent spice (think of eating plain ground cinnamon, and you’ll know what I mean).
That’s what I was going for with this oatmeal. In winter, I like a hot breakfast that is also warming. By this I mean something that warms from the outside in, and the inside out. This is one of my favorite things about Chai tea: it’s double warming nature. And things that warm from the inside out — such as ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves — are good for the immune system as well as an overall sense of well-being. Both are vitally important in the depths of winter.
For this Chai Spiced Oatmeal, I wanted to capture something of that warming Chai tea goodness. I used a variety of spices: Cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, anise seeds. You can use these, or whatever you like and have on hand. You can also adjust the amounts to suit your tastes. A lot of these spices feature in holiday cooking, so you may have them hanging around the cabinet as I do. I used vanilla to balance the spices, and I added golden raisins for a little added texture, sweetness, and nutrition. I also added a little milk toward the end of the cooking to lend creaminess. And I should point out that I use steel-cut oats. I prefer them to rolled oats for oatmeal. They take longer to cook, but I find that they’re worth it. And they’re healthier than rolled oats; minimal processing means they retain more of their outer hull where lies most of the nutrition. This oatmeal has become a new favorite for me, and I have high hopes that it will bring a little warmth to what is proving to be a very cold winter season.
CHAI SPICED OATMEAL
1 cup steel-cut oats
3 1/2 cups boiling water
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground ginger (or a grating of fresh ginger)
1/8 tsp. ground cardamom
1/8 tsp. ground cloves
1/8 tsp. nutmeg, freshly grated
a few anise seeds
1/2 cup milk
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1/2 cup golden raisins (or regular raisins)
brown sugar or maple syrup for topping, if desired
Note that steel-cut oats use a 4-1 ratio of water-to-oats. That’s significantly higher than rolled oats. You can adjust the ratio to suit your tastes — less water will result in a thicker oatmeal with a chewier texture, more water gives a creamier oatmeal with a softer texture. I prefer the latter.
To begin, toast the oats lightly. Put the oats into a medium-sized dry sauce pan. Set it over medium heat. Stir or shake the pan occasionally. When you start to smell the oats toasting, you’re in business. But it’s a short road to burning. I once walked away from my toasting oats and completely scorched them. It was thoroughly unpleasant. So stay nearby.
While you’re toasting the oats, set the water in a kettle to boil. Then try saying “toasting oats” over and over.
I find that the boiling and the toasting take about the same amount of time. Convenient, no?
When the oats are lightly toasted, pour in the boiling water, stirring. Adding boiling water, and stirring while you do it — as opposed to adding cool water and letting it all come to a boil together — improves the texture of your oatmeal. I’m not sure why. Something to do with starch. At any rate, this will boil rapidly and violently as you pour it into the already-hot pot. Use caution.
Stir in the spices. Cover. Turn the heat to medium-low. Simmer for 20-25 minutes, or until most of the water has been absorbed. This timing will vary depending on the brand of oats, how much you toasted them, and so forth. Stir occasionally, perhaps every 5 minutes or so, to prevent sticking and burning, and to check on their progress.
When most of the water is absorbed, stir in the milk, vanilla, and raisins. Simmer for another 5 minutes, or until the oatmeal reaches the consistency you like. For me, this occurs when the simmering bubbles become thick and slow popping, like steam vents in the earth’s surface.
Serve, topped with brown sugar or maple syrup, if you like. I like. I alternate between the two. Sometimes I’m in a syrup mood, sometimes I’m in a sugar mood. I also add milk to my bowl. Like the sugar, this is optional, but totally delicious.