There is a beautiful vulnerability about morning-time. The sleepy-eyed dogs just want to come love you. Morning shift rickshaw wallas are sitting in their little carts, doing the newspaper crossword puzzles. People drive slower. Minds are quieter. You don’t have quite enough strength to even make a fist. When you hug a child, they just melt in your arms. India was like that.
I smelled burning wood in the fresh air. I smelled taaza subzi fresh vegetables at the market. I was hit for a minute by a shock of weed. I smelled hot milk and strong chai.
I crept around the corner of his stall to take a peek and drink in his secret recipe with my eyes. It really didn’t look like he had any out of the ordinary ingredients. A giant vat of steaming buffalo milk. Sugar. Some spiced tea masala. Tea powder. Perhaps it was his dirty fingernails chopping up the fresh udurak ginger, which made the street chai so delicious. Finally, he figured out what I was trying to do.
“Idhar aajao Come here,” he said, beckoning me closer to watch him. He boiled the milk and water, until it rose up to the surface. Then he switched off the heat, added some fresh ginger, and turned it back on low. With a huge ladle, he kept tossing the milk up and down and up and down, to prevent it from burning and over boiling. To this, he slowly added his tea masala, which from what my nose could tell, was heavy with cardamom. More ladling. Then a heaping, whopping amount of sugar. More ladling. Then tons of tea powder, which came from a large silver bag, and whose brand I did not recognize. More ladling. More ladling. Until the whole thing turned a beautiful warm brown. He switched off the heat, and with the help of his fellow mate, poured it into a cheesecloth over a giant iron kettle, which he twisted and squeezed expertly as the delicious brown liquid seeped out. Then he poured me a little glassful of “cutting chai”. Delicious. And fascinating.
CHAI. A sweet, sugary, milky, spicy, tea. Sustenance. Good morning. Good evening. Relief. Please come in.
My fascination for chai goes beyond what’s in the cup. What I mean is that it isn’t only the taste that entices me. It is the culture that you become a part of when you sit down to drink the warm stuff. The feelings that chai evokes. The relationship between the Indian man and chai. All walks of life drink it, from the poorest beggar to the wealthiest of sorts. No one takes it “to-go”. You offer it to anyone who comes to your door. Chai means it is time to stop whatever you are doing, and take some slow sips of soul warming revival.
Here are my tea-time-thoughts.
Six months ago, if you asked me to make you a cup of chai, I would have hesitated. I wasn’t so confident in my Indian tea-making ability. I knew how to make it the American way: boil the water, dip the bag, two minutes later, presto!, voila! However, now, after making countless glasses of morning chai, using tea leaves, fresh spices, a strainer, I am getting the hang of it. Each day is a bit better and better and easier. Just goes to show, we can do anything with practice.
Some history for you…Indians have had chai in their land for ages, since before the Ramayana. They used the tea and spices as Ayurvedic medicine, and masked the bitter taste with milk and sugar. However, the Brits really kicked off the trend when they started mass producing tea in India with the East India Trading Company.
A note on street chai, a.k.a. “cutting chai”…Why is it so darn delicious? Well a few reasons I can think of: 1. It is sweetly sugared. 2. It is made with fatty buffalo milk. 3. The water is questionable. 4. And, you are drinking it on the street amongst strangers and stray dogs. How wonderful. I indulge every once in a while.
How to make a cup at home.
The Ratio guidelines: for one cup of chai
- 1 cup water (which evaporates a bit in the process)
- 1 tsp tea powder
- 1/3 cup milk
- Spices and sugar are up to your taste buds
STEP ONE: the spices
Ah this is magic part! Ginger, cardamom, cloves, lemongrass, cinnamon, nutmeg. The list goes on. Personally, I can’t do without fresh ginger and three smashed cardamom pods. Lemongrass is amazing if I have it on hand.
Place your desired spices in a saucepan with water. Switch on the gas. When the water comes to a boil, give the spices at least two minutes to start talking before you move ahead to step two.
STEP TWO: the tea powder
There are tons of varieties available. Dargeeling, Assam, Kashmiri. Each has a different taste, so it is up to you to experiment and see what you like. At home, I use Brooks Bond Taj Mahal. Some other popular brands are Red Label and Tetley. Of course the chai wallas use some secret wholesale brand. Mostly all are processed with the CTC method – “crush, tear, curl”. Machines crush the leaves, tear them, and then roll them in big rollers to “curl” them. Isn’t that neat?
Turn the heat lower and add about a teaspoon of tea powder to your water. It should bubble up a bit.
STEP THREE: the sugar
It makes the tea taste good. You don’t have to go overboard with the sugar, like the chai wallas do, but a little sweetness enhances the spices and nubs the bitterness of the black tea. I’ve also experimented with honey, Stevia, jaggery, brown sugar. Each gives the tea a whole new flavor, but if you are craving the authentic chai, use white sugar.
Add your desired amount to the water, spices, tea powder.
Does it matter what kind I use? YES. It makes all the difference, believe it or not. I find the fattier milks, like whole milk and buffalo milk, take the bitterness right out of the tea. So for these, you don’t need to put as much sugar. Remember the more milk you add, the lighter your tea becomes. And if you don’t add enough, your tea is just plain watery. Yuck. So judge it carefully. Regular milk works well. Soy, rice, almond milk are excellent options for the lactose people.
Note: don’t use soy milk in India. It is just gross.
Once you add the desired amount of milk, let the tea come to a rolling boil. Then switch off the heat.
Strain your tea into a cast iron teapot or a pretty mug. Sip slowly.
And there you have it. Happy Chai making! Better yet, don’t make tea. Come over and I will make you some. And we can eat biscuits too.
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