Chai – The Way India Drinks Tea…
Around the time I hit middle school, I began helping my mom in the kitchen. One of the very first things she taught me was how to make a cup of chai and it instantly became one of my favorite things to do. I’d stand on a short stool to reach the counter and my mom would give me tasks, to pass the can of sugar or stir the chai as it simmered, while she’d act the role of a potion master, craftily combining one part water, two parts milk, a heap of tea leaves and just one short spoon of sugar. If it was raining outside or was particularly nippy, she’d toss in a few whole spices – anything she could reach in her spice box, cardamom, cinnamon, clove, fennel… Ginger occasionally found it’s way in, especially when somebody in the family was under the weather. When it was ready, we’d drink our chais in big ceramic mugs, with a side of Glucose biscuits, a light sandwich or a snack with a similar disposition.
This is chai as I have always known it.
Unfortunately, chai plays in the little league in the larger world of tea. Many still believe that any black tea consumed with milk and sugar qualifies to be a chai. This notion of chai is not only bad but wrong: excessively simple and lessening.
A good, authentic cup of chai, those you’d find at most homes in India and its street corners, is a perfect balance between tea and milk. You do not steep chai, you brew it. You brew it in way that perfectly combines the tannic strength of the black tea with sweetness of piping hot milk, embellished further by the addition of sugar. It’s a perfect drink, in its own right. But no tea expert will ever tell you that.
For purists, just the idea of drowning tea in milk is blasphemous; they think of it as something that diminishes the tea’s personality, which is perhaps why they never encourage it in their dialects. Chai lovers, on the other hand, view the drink with a lot more enthusiasm. It’s not just the chemistry of flavors which works for them but the emotional spaces to which it lends itself so effortlessly. Chai is a welcoming sight, much like the sound of crackling wood on a winter evening or freshly buttered toast first thing in the morning. It’s the kind of tea you’d lay out for your friends and family when they are over because everybody loves a sweet treat. It’s nourishing in every season. And if it’s the thing you grew up on, nothing else can comfort you better.