Published May 8, 2013 - Last Updated January 22, 2021
Chai – the hebrew word meaning “life” – is created by combining the Hebrew letters chet and yud. It’s pronounced like the word “hi,” as if you were saying hi to somebody, except the “h” has a slight glottal stop in the back of your throat– not “ch” as in cheese, rather “ch” as in “kh.” I don’t know exactly how to describe the sound, just imagine Adam Sandler in “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan” saying the word “hello” and you’ll get it. It’s a funky sound we don’t really use in English, and it took me a while to get the hang of it. Now it’s second nature. Sort of.
In Hebrew, the word chai is spelled with the Hebrew letters chet and yud. It looks like this:
While the word chai means “life,” it also has a much deeper meaning for the Jewish people. The Hebrew letters have become a celebrated symbol, a reminder to be good and do good in life. You might see these Hebrew letters on necklaces and jewelry worn by Jewish women. The numerology behind the word is interesting. In the mystical Jewish tradition of gematria, the Hebrew letters chet and yud add up to a numeric value of 18, which represents good luck. This is why Jewish folks often give monetary gifts for bar mitzvahs and weddings in multiples of 18.
Those of you who aren’t Jewish are probably familiar with the word chai as it’s used in a popular song from Fiddler on the Roof – “L’chaim,” which means “to life.”
Oh man, I love that musical. Doesn’t hearing that song just make your whole day better?
Maybe you young whipper snappers out there are more familiar with the Black Eyed Peas referencing “l’chaim” in their song “I Gotta Feeling.”
Of course, some might see the word chai and imagine frothy Indian-spiced lattes… and that’s okay too. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Hebrew word chai and the Indian spice blend chai have the same English spelling. The two words are pronounced slightly different, but they’re both describing something very, very good. The Indian chai spice blend is warm, bold and full of vigor. It makes people happy. A great chai latte makes me want to raise my mug and say “l’chaim!” It was only a matter of time till the chai spice blend made its way into my traditional Jewish cooking.
Today’s noodle kugel recipe is based on my favorite Lokshen Kugel, amped up with– you guessed it– chai. I added a homemade chai spice blend and a graham cracker crumble topping to make a sweet, lightly spiced dessert-style kugel. Shavuot is next week, a Jewish holiday when dairy foods are traditionally served (learn more here). This kugel would make a great option for a Shavuot menu, a spring brunch, or just because. It’s a fun twist on the traditional kugel theme.
Incidentally, there is another word that has meaning for both Indians and Jews– shiksa! In Yiddish, it means non-Jewish woman (and is sometimes used as a term of insult, but never on this blog). In India, I’ve been told the word shiksa (pronounced shiksha) actually means teacher or education. How cool is that? I guess in some ways I’ve become a cooking teacher here on the web. I’ll embrace the Indian definition of my nickname, just as I’ve embraced chai lattes. It’s all good!
No matter how you choose to pronounce the name of this kugel… with a chai (chet and yud) or a chai (ch- as in cheese)… either way, you can’t go wrong. It’s a creamy, dreamy, rich and fabulous mix of flavors. I swear, Indian chai spices were meant for kugel. Can’t believe I didn’t think of it sooner. It’s enough to make me chai on life. L’chaim!
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Other Great Recipe Ideas
Joy the Baker: Chai-Spiced Cinnamon Rolls
Eat the Love: Chai Chocolate Orange Marbled Brioche Loaf
Simply Recipes: Chai Ice Cream
Blue Kale Road: Chai Chia Pudding
Thanks for stopping by! I am fascinated by the story behind the food – why we eat what we eat, how the foods of different cultures have evolved, and how yesterday’s food can inspire us in the kitchen today. Read more...