Decadent pleasures

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Last week was crazy – which is why this post is late…by my internal deadlines, that is. My inbox isn’t clogged up with irate mails from  my readers demanding to know why they could not have their weekly fix of C&K!

The week was full of medicines and medical visits – dentist, ophthalmologist, optician, and all the seasonal allergies to add to it. The long and short is, it was hyper. So I did something I have not done for a very very long time – I took a nap, an afternoon nap. Oh the luxury! Oh the comfort! Oh the sweet delight of knowing no one was going to disturb me for the next 2 hours at least! And oh the horror of having to remake the bed…and oh the misery of craving a nice cup of chai and having to make it on my own instead of having it brought up to me!

In the tropics, an afternoon nap is de rigeur IF your schedule affords it. The sapping heat, the enervating humidity and the early rising (5 am is pretty normal) all combine to make an afternoon nap one of the most amazing productivity tools there is. It breaks up a long hot day into the `before-and-after’ and ensures you can cope with the demands of your day. In Europe, I have not needed it ever. Unless it was a really really bad night with one of the kids or a jet lag thing. Weather is a major determinant of life patterns.

One of the really delicious memories of the high school/college routine is about getting home in the afternoon, taking a nap, and being woken up with a nice strong cup of chai brought to me by Ma or the cook. Fragrant, sweet, hot and refreshing, usually accompanied by a biscuit, this cup of tea was heaven itself, and revitalized the body and spirit for an evening outing with friends and the tons of homework that lay ahead. So Tarabai, Shashi, Anju, Sharda, Suong, Ha, Mary, Rukhsana and all the other cooks who have served me – my thanks and love go out to you all. And Ma – well what can I say? Where does one even start to thank a mother?

Tea is an inherent part of the Indian psyche and way of life. It’s considered a `basic’ of hospitality – not offering `even a cup of tea’ to every stripe of visitor to your home or office is a sign of extremely bad manners. So it was with this cultural background that I experienced some degree of horror when I got to know (a decade or so ago) that our tea drinking habit is just over a hundred years old. In an unbroken culture of 5,000 years, that does not even qualify as `yesterday’.

In many homes, tea is made in a saucepan that is reserved exclusively for that purpose. Over time it develops a dull brown patina and adds a mature flavor to the tea. I’m trying to start my own tradition here, with this special saucepan that has a nicely fitted lid and an inbuilt strainer – not a coincidence..I spent ages looking for it!

While indigenous varieties of tea bushes grew in North-East India and had been consumed by tribal people for centuries, it was the British that started the large scale cultivation of tea in Assam in the 1830s. The impetus was to cater to their domestic market that had developed an insatiable taste for the brew thanks to their trade with China. When tea was cultivated in Assam however, it was found to be bitter and more acidic than the Chinese tea. What to do? Different  variety, different geographical conditions. And so to make it palatable, they started drinking it with milk and sugar – a practice that spread to all of the Empire. Even today, it’s mostly people from the UK , Australia. Canada and of course the Indian Subcontinent that drink it that way.

As recently as 1910, the sales guys from Unilever used to set up tea stalls outside factories and in busy market places in India, introducing workers to the concept of drinking tea during their cigarette / beedi breaks from work. (Makes me wonder what they drank before – milk? juice? All expensive and hard-to-get-fresh options). My dad tells me that in rural and small-town India, even upto the 1940’s tea was considered a `not-so-respectable’ a drink, bordering tobacco and mild narcotics in its image as a beverage that is addictive and `does’ something to you.

What a distance tea has travelled! Thankfully.

While it almost wounds my Indian pride to know that it was the British who taught us to drink tea (it’s a drink we consider our very own!) I take heart in the fact that we have thoroughly `desified’ (Indianized) it – Masala chai is our contribution to the evolution of this wonderful beverage, something that is increasingly becoming fashionable as Chai tea or Chai tea Latte as Starbucks calls it.

So with a local spin on this universal beverage, infused and suffused with all the flavors of  my culture, I bring to you, (drum roll please…) Masala chai!

MASALA CHAI (prep time 2 mins, cooking time 10 mins, serves 1-2, depending on how large a serving you like)

* Water – 250 ml

* Fresh milk – 1 tbsp (or less or more depending on how milky you like your tea). But do remember – without milk, delicious though it may be, it is not masala chai.

* Sugar (brown or white) – at least double of what you normally would like in your tea. There’s something about the spices that necessitates the upping of the sugar content. Treat it as a dessert if you will! Or skip the sugar (like I do, alas) and compromise on some of the taste.

* Tea – 1 bag or 1 tsp of strong black tea

* Spices – this might seem like an intimidating list. Fear not. Use as many or as few of the spices as you have, without any great compromise on taste. Different combinations give different flavor variations, each one wonderful in it’s own way, each one therapeutic in it’s own way. Fennel chai always reminds me of childhood fevers and mom’s loving ministrations. A strong ginger chai is what I use when I have a headache or need a strong pick-me-up, and the total-mix is what I usually make when I have friends over. Over time, you will figure out just what you like. PS – please do use whole spices, not powders – powders are not aromatic enough, and will irritate the throat when you drink the tea.

# Green cardamom  – 1 (smashed open)

# Cinnamon – 1 cm stick

# Peppercorns – 2

# Clove – 1

# Fennel seeds – a pinch

# Fresh ginger – a 1-2 cm piece, unpeeled (there’s lot of flavour in the peel! But do remember to wash it please. Ginger is a root and can sometimes be a bit gritty). Prepare it as as convenient – grate, crush or slice thinly (I personally love the earthy `thump’ of crushing ginger)

– Put the water, the milk, the sugar and the spices in a saucepan – cover and bring to the boil.

– Uncover, add the tea and simmer for about 5 mins.

– At this point you can decide if you need more milk or need to let it simmer for longer because you like it stronger … maybe you’d like to add some more tea to it – let the color of the tea lead your judgment. I’m not a major milk fan, and prefer my tea more dark than light.

– Cover and let it steep for a minute or so.

– Strain, pour  out and enjoyyyy!!

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8 responses »

  1. Lovely writing Shruti!
    What I love about your writing is the sprinkling of memories, anecdotes, nostalgia that you put into it. I’m suddenly missing afternoon naps in hot Delhi summers, and I’m craving a hot cup of chai. Can I rub it in just a little and say I DO have someone to bring it to me 🙂

  2. Thank you Rush, for your kind words. And go ahead and rub it in… I’m already planning my revenge…and it will not be sweet!! bhuhahahaha..!

  3. Shruti you are just getting better & better at this. I am NOT (in Capitals) a masala chai drinker at all. I drink it like a Pukka Brit (all brewed in a tea pot my dear for at least 3.5 minutes & then prefer the first cup with just a dash of full cream milk) ha ha ha. But after reading your amazing piece on “masala chai” (with all that research on the origins of the different ways of drinking it), I actually want to go down & make a cup of masala chai now. And it is bed time here. More power to you girl 🙂

  4. Thanks Anubha for your appreciation – very flattering from one who writes well herself! I love tea both ways! And the third way – the Asian one that we know well.

  5. Sure, dad & I will try masala chai made your way. But for the time being let me relish all over again your writing on tea, and the pics accompanying it. I’m going to re-read AND re-read AND re-read…………………………

    Love,
    mapa.

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