I really love the warming and aromatic spices that become so appealing this time of year. The common ones: cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, cloves, nutmeg and some of the lesser used but lovely ones like fennel, juniper, star anise, tangerine peel and fenugreek. I’ve always had a weak, often cold, digestive system. But over the years I’ve been able to strengthen my digestion through the inclusion of lots of naturally fermented foods as well as regular consumption of warming, aromatic herbs and spices.
“You are what you eat” is a common phrase tossed around in our society. I prefer “you are what you digest”. You can be eating the most nutritious foods around but if your digestive system is too weak, only a fraction of these nutrients will be able to be absorbed and utilized by your body. The same holds true for nutritive, tonic herbs. You can be ingesting them, but again, if your body is too weak to digest and assimilate them, you’ll see limited benefits. I know this from personal experience. It wasn’t until I did some serious work strengthening and warming up my digestion, that I finally began to see major improvements from the tonic herbs I’d been consuming.
Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese medicine both place a huge emphasis on supporting and building the digestion. These cultures have numerous warming spices that they commonly include in both cooked dishes and herbal formulas. In fact, all the ones listed above are common herbs used in either one or both of these traditions. Along with warming and building the assimilative functions of the body, these herbs are also commonly used to treat cramping, bloating, and other digestive discomforts. Adding one (or several) of these herbs to a tea or tincture blend is also a great way to help the body better absorb the properties of the other herbs in the formula.
One of my absolute favorite ways to use warming spices is by making a pot of chai in the cold, foggy mornings and drinking it first thing to help warm me up and ‘wake up’ my digestion. I also love a cup or two in the afternoon shared with friends. Consumed regularly, chai is absolutely a form of herbal medicine, strengthening the digestive fire and helping increase our resistance to the various viral and bacterial strains going around. When our bodies are struggling to stay warm, we’re more susceptible to infections.
But all herbal benefits aside, most of us find these spices to be delicious. They’re included in so many fall and winter recipes (pumpkin pie anyone?) partly because they do warm us up and aid in the digestion of rich foods often consumed this time of year, but also in large part because we enjoy the taste of them. And enjoyment is a great medicine in and of itself, don’t you think?
I was shown years ago how to make chai from scratch by an Indian friend who is also an amazing cook. She’d make it in the mornings to have with breakfast. It’s really good chai, way better than any you’ll make from a tea bag. In fact, I had a friend recently ask me for the recipe. She said it just might have been the best cup of chai she’s ever had (don’t you love it when people tell you that?). So this recipe is for her. Most of the credit should go to my instructor. Like I said, she’s an amazing cook.
The ingredients weren’t measured, it was a pinch of this, a pinch of that kind of teaching. I’ve learned to just do it by sight. But I went ahead and measured it all out for you since you can’t just look over my shoulder and copy what I do. I’ve also added american licorice to my recipe because I love the subtle sweetness it adds and I think most herbal blends just taste better and work better with a little licorice added (don’t worry, it doesn’t make it taste like licorice). I love the kidney building, calming effects of licorice. It’s one of my favorite herbs. I toss it into all kinds of things. Also I don’t like simmering my black tea, I just steep it. Other than that the recipe is pretty authentically Indian.
And one other note, please take the time to use fresh, grated ginger if you have it. It tastes so much better than if you just substitute dried ginger. Although I’m drinking a cup of chai made with dried ginger while I’m writing this since I’m out of fresh ginger…So use what you have, but it’s better with fresh. Also, I use a really good black tea. Darjeeling is classic but I have another black tea that I prefer and I use that.
Ready? This makes a large pot of chai, plenty to share with company or enough to drink several cups throughout the day.
1 Tbs cardamon pods, cracked slightly
2 tsp cinnamon chips
2 tsp shredded american licorice root
3-5 clove buds
3-5 black pepper corns
1 inch fresh ginger, grated
1 Tbs high quality loose black tea
4 cups of water (3 if you like your spice stronger)
2 cups fresh milk
2-3 Tbs honey (sweeten to taste)
Combine all the spices together in a pot with the water. Cover and bring to a boil then reduce heat to a simmer. Simmer, covered for 15 minutes. Turn off heat. Add the black tea and steep 2-3 minutes. Strain the tea, wash your pot and pour the strained tea back in. Add your milk and honey and gently warm the chai until hot, taking care not to boil the milk. Pour into mugs and enjoy!
* The beautiful, handmade pottery is from my brother-in-law, Owen (tea-pot), and sister-in-law, Sarah (cup), who are both talented local potters.