Nothing happens fast in India. Nor does it happen without a cup of chai in hand. In my father’s tiny village in Punjab, we would first awake to a 4 a.m. loudspeaker call to prayer from the neighboring temples and mosques. Then, the only slightly muted shuffling of the house help lighting the tiny two-burner stove in my grandmother’s kitchen – dark, slightly damp, and lined with chipped stone. As visitors to these daily occurrences – it was always frustrating to have sleep interrupted in this way, but to my grandmother and her household it was routine.
Our frustrations would be set aside once the steaming, delicious cups of chai were brought to us on a rectangular tray and served with mounds of white, processed sugar on the side in tiny, chipped plastic bowls. Likely the same bowls my mother brought on her last visit from the States.
I’ll always remember my dadi (paternal grandmother) huddled up on her bed under mounds of warm comforters, grasping a cup of chai with both her wrinkled hands – at once tiny and stoic. As she grabbed for her chunni to keep her head covered, she would also belt out orders to Chota, her companion hired to help take care of her everyday needs. Usually when we visited North India around October or November, the chill of winter was setting in, and was always made colder without the central heating that spoiled us ‘Amriken‘ kids. ‘Import-Exports’ as my family in India liked to tease me.
To this day, I love a good cup of chai. I am very sorry, Starbucks. You can’t even come close. Nor do many of the tea bags on the market – though they are getting better. At most coffee shops sweet syrup adulterates the experience, and many bagged teas have too much of one thing or another: cloves, cardamom, or both.
And, folks. I do mean Chai. NOT Chai Tea, which really just translates to Tea Tea. The next time you hear a snicker or get an eye-roll in response to your order in line, you’ll know why. Us Indian are always amazed when you non-Indians refer to our drink of choice like this, rather than just taking the time to realize that Chai means tea!
Dirty Chai is the worst. Someone actually ordered this at my local Lincoln Park coffee shop right in front of me - Chai with a shot of espresso. Are we seriously that confused that we can’t figure out what we want, so just get both coffee and tea?
If you decide to go for the tea – reach for authentic. You won’t be sorry. Make it. Drink it. Sip it. Just don’t call it Tea-Tea…or you may just elicit a giggle or two.
Anupy’s Masala Chai
1 1/2 cups water
1 black tea bag
3 small green cardamom
3 whole cloves
pinch of fennel seed
1 small piece cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon grated ginger
Milk (whole/2 percent/skim/soy/almond/coconut)
1/2 teaspoon honey or Agave nectar (love this stuff)
In a small pot boil water. Add teabag.
Lightly crush cardamom, cloves, and fennel. Add to boiling water along with cinnamon and ginger.
Allow to boil until dark brownish black.
Add milk slowly. I don’t like to use too much maybe 2 – 3 tablespoons at the most. Some people like their chai lighter in color and heavier on milk, so just add more.
Watch closely as it comes to a boil. It can overflow very easily at this point.
Once it boils, spoon out the teabag and turn the heat off. Put the lid on and let it sit for about 3 minutes.
Take lid off and let it come to another boil. Serve immediately (have a tea strainer handy to hold over the cup while you pour through it to catch any spices). Add honey or Agave.
I also love making Chai Masala, which is a mix of spices that is then ground down into a powder. This powder can then be used to make the chai above. Just add about a 1/2 teaspoon for every cup of water instead of the cardamom, cloves, fennel, and cinnamon. I’d still add the fresh ginger because there is nothing like it.
The following recipe appears in my second book, Vegan Indian Cooking, on page 56. I usually make a batch and store in an air-tight jar.
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
9 cinnamon sticks (broken into pieces if possible)
1 tablespoon whole cloves
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
2 tablespoons whole green cardamom pods (or 2 teaspoons cardamom seeds)
3 black cardamom pods (omit if you don’t have)
2 tablespoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon turmeric powder (optional, but great for colds)
Put all ingredients except ginger and turmeric in a spice grinder or Vitamix. Process to a fine powder. Put in bowl and add ginger and turmeric if using. Mix well. Store in an air-tight container.
Use this blend to also season roasted nuts, make apple pie, sprinkle over baked sweet potatoes, and as an add it to your apple cider.