Chai, Literally Tea
A friend of mine recently traveled to India with her business partner and had the opportunity to expand her cooking knowledge while learning about a different culture through food. When we met for lavender lattes at a local coffee shop she told me all about her experience with chai. And before we departed with hugs and trading sweet treats from our favorite bakeries in the city, I feverously scribbled down the simple recipe – brought back from her Didi and Masi (which translates to auntie in Hindi).
She told me of mornings with the women, she would stretch awake into the living space and the women would have already been up for hours – sitting cross legged on the floor, enjoying their rising sun break with a cup of chai and paratha (wheat bread). The women would greet them with welcoming smiles and offer them a cup and a place beside them. Though the language barrier prevented intimate conversations there was something sacred about sharing a warm cup of spiced tea before working hours in the local restaurant’s kitchen, and before Didi and Masi continued their work around the house and farm.
What we think of in America as this specialized beverage, in India, is the standard way of preparing tea. And in Hindi chai literally translates to the word tea. For the Indian subcontinent it implies tea fused with milk, sugar, and spices. In big cities there are chaiwallas (vendors who sell chai) on every corner and depending on the region depicts the flavor profile of the chai. Some use green tea instead of black, almonds are often added, and pinches of salt tossed in at an elders insistence from a memorized recipe. Though there is a debate on how to properly make chai and what method brings out the spice’s deepest flavor, the key is always patience.
My friend laughed whole heartedly as I explained my impatience with gently boiling milk, burning the base more often than not, and rushing back to the stove as my chai boiled over. She laughed, saying even the best of the best, like her Didi and Masi, still made those mistakes some mornings – but that without a doubt every morning in India began with a cup, and it’s a practice she’s returning home to appreciate and spread.
“It’s the welcoming drink with friends and family and the offering of a cup of chai often leads to people sitting down, longer than planned, to share stories, gossip, and dream.”
The scribbled recipe I captured was simple. Black tea, cardamom, cloves, ginger, star anise, and a cinnamon stick – all to personal taste preference. Using milk or water, combine the ingredients and as soon as it comes to a boil you strain it. No need to grate the ginger, just mash it. Add more milk or water as needed.
From an herbal properties standpoint it makes sense as to why masala chai (spiced tea) is the common drink –
Ginger and black pepper: stimulate digestion
Cloves: antiseptic properties to relieve pain
Cardamom: elevates mood
Cinnamon: stimulates circulation and respiration
Star Anise: freshens breath
A social drink, a communal drink, an addictive drink, and a tradition. Though I agree with this philosophy as the overall nature of tea, I myself associate warm and happy memories with chai. It was a tradition and a conversation with my dad and I. Anytime one of us would put the water on a second cup would always have to be poured. When we were angry with each other, winding down for the night, ecstatic about new opportunities – the conversations, and sometimes lack their of, always involved a mug of tea.
Courtney was born and raised in the restaurant industry, so it comes as no surprise that her writing and storytelling is centered around food and drink. She works full-time in Detroit’s restaurant industry and spends her free time exploring the great lakes with her husband and rescue pups.
You can follow her ramblings at her website, www.spoonfulofink.com, and on Instagram and Twitter at @spoonfulof_ink.