One sip is all it took to hook me. Intent on feeding my caramel fixation one recent morning, I stopped by the La Cocina stall at the Ferry Plaza farmers' market for some alfajores. As I made my purchase, culinary director Jason Rose handed me a miniature paper cup filled with steaming Morning Glory Chai.
Cue the (food) porn soundtrack: boom-chicka-bow-wow chicka-bow-wow. The chai was spicy with a soupçon of exotic sweetness, and almost unbearably creamy. It was, hands down, the best chai I've ever tasted. I had to learn more.
Chai means tea in several languages, including Turkish and Russian, but it also refers to the intoxicating blend of warm milk, black tea, and aromatic Indian spices that has become a familiar drink on coffee shop menus. Most chais incorporate cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, freshly grated nutmeg, and pepper into the mix; Morning Glory adds all of those, as well as less common seasonings like vanilla bean, coriander, and orange peel. But what really sets Morning Glory apart is the inclusion of Chinese herbs, which give new meaning to the term "pick me up."
According to Laura Smailes, a certified clinical herbalist and the San Francisco manufacturer of Morning Glory Chai, there is astragulus to build the immune system and galangal to increase circulation. Gotu kola is good for the brain and, in conjunction with ginkgo, adds oxygen to the blood. Foti is added for longevity. "The Chinese say it will keep your hair black," she explains.
The Morning Glory Chai recipe dates back 12 years, when Seattle-based herbalist Jessica Vidica-Neisus brewed the first cup. "She chose herbs that were safe for anyone to use. There are no contraindications in these small doses. It's a way to get medicine into a tasty beverage." Put simply: "It increases circulation, brain function, and digestion."
Laura and Jessica met while Laura was apprenticing at an herbal apothecary and working at the Chai House in Seattle. When she moved to San Francisco to study ayurvedic medicine, she was looking for a way to support herself.
"I realized there was no good chai in San Francisco," Laura says. "I started the chai business to put myself through school." Two and a half years later, her chai is served at places like Farley's, Ritual Coffee Roasters, and Bi-Rite Creamery, where it is incorporated into a hot drinking chocolate.
Laura makes each batch by hand. She starts by filling a 30-gallon pot with filtered water. Once it's boiling, she simmers the herbs and spices for 45 minutes, then removes them and adds fair-trade black tea and ginkgo. Finally she adds honey, vanilla, and organic maple syrup to sweeten the chai. (A decaf version is brewed without tea.)
Laura's use of natural sweeteners means the chai is safe drinking for people with blood sugar problems such as hypoglycemia. It's also dairy-free, which gives people a choice of how to drink it. "It's traditionally drunk with steamed milk in India," Laura says. But some people prefer it straight up.
And the name? It is named for a flower known to induce an alternate state of consciousness. As Laura says, "It's the tea of dreams."
To brew at home: Combine equal parts chai and milk. Drink cold, or steam and serve hot. Once open, refrigerate and consume within three weeks. Refrigerate decaf chai immediately, whether open or not.
Available at Brickhouse Café & Bar, Farley's, MotoJava, Ritual Coffee Roasters. Also available in half-gallon jugs ($11) at Ferry Plaza & Alemany farmers' markets.