For many Vancouverites, a cup of chai tea means spoonfuls of sugar, heaps of foam, sprinkles of cinnamon, and, whether they know it or not, loads of artificial flavours. But Aslan Amini figured there was a market here for authentic chai, and he was right.
It was a little over a year ago that the Sauder School of Business graduate set up a cafe inside East Vancouver’s Maker Labs with the intention of serving up traditional drinks: Turkish coffee, Vietnamese coffee, and, of course, Indian chai. “I didn’t want to use a syrup and I didn’t want to use a powder,” he says over a hot morning beverage at Mink. “So I made my own.”
Extensive research and good-old trial and error eventually led Amini to a perfected blend that was so popular at Maker Labs that he decided to close the cafe and focus on his tea, which he calls Aslan Chai. It is fitting that his product carries his name; after all, he is literally a one-man operation, hand-grinding and hand-mixing all of the spices, doing all of the packaging and labelling himself. It’s a labour of love, and it shows.
“I honestly don’t understand why people like it so much—I mean, I know it’s good, but it was surprising that it has had such a high success rate,” Amini says. “I always get this comment: ‘It’s not too sweet, and it’s actually spicy.’” That would be thanks to his choice of ingredients: fennel, cardamom, cinnamon, brown sugar, black pepper, and green tea. While chai is usually made with ginger or white pepper and black tea, Amini’s early-on experimentation led him to choose alternative ways for getting the palate across. “The reason I use green tea is because it’s more subtle, it’s in the background,” he explains. “You can taste more of the spices than with black tea.” That delicacy of the green tea lets the other flavours in Aslan Chai shine, including the fragrant black pepper. It equals to a cup that really does taste better, with a healthy dose of spice and the comforting knowledge that it was made from whole ingredients.
The Iran-born, Canada-raised Amini considers himself a man of the “process”—it’s the creation of the tea that he finds so fascinating and so soothing. “It is a science,” he says. Of course, the actual chai itself—which can be found at places including Le Marché St. George and Be Fresh Market in Vancouver, Republica Coffee Roasters in Langley, and Shoreline Surf and Sup in Victoria—is a huge love of his, too. “It’s got so many health benefits,” he says. “All the spices—the black pepper, the cardamom, fennel, cinnamon—all have anti-inflammatory properties, they’re good for blood pressure. And green tea has antioxidants.” Amini rubs his chest, mimicking the motions of someone who feels ill, as he says, “If I’m ever feeling like something is not going right, I’ll have a cup—and I don’t know if it’s a placebo effect, but I feel better.”