Monday, September 15, 2003

My son Ted’s neighborhood picnics at his home in suburban Chicago look like the United Nations has convened. His friends include blacks, East Asians, Indians, white Americans and an assortment of others, from babies to seniors.

As a recent Sunday gathering I attended was breaking up, an Indian couple from down the street extended an invitation. “How nice to finally meet Ted’s mother,” said Annu Gandhi. She and her husband Arun are architects who met in India when they were students. “Tomorrow you must come for chai. About 10 o’clock?” Perfect, I said. Will you teach me how to make it?

I never turn down the chance to be taught an authentic ethnic recipe firsthand. Besides, I crave chai and often drink it as dessert.

Indian chai (which rhymes with pie) is a sweet and spicy milk tea that has become increasingly popular throughout the world. Chai is so mainstream in the United States that it is not only a menu staple in chain coffee shops, you can find it in cartons in the supermarket.

Commercial chai is a blend of black tea, honey, vanilla bean and spices. When milk is added, it is a heady and delightful brew, served either hot or cold. Never content to let well enough alone, Americans have created chai variations, including chai latte, chai milkshakes, mocha chai with low-calorie sweeteners, decaf and other usual suspects.

The next morning, we were ready for the lesson and the tea. Chai making is easy, Annu told me as she measured out one cup of water for each person into an ordinary saucepan. As the water came to a boil, she added black tea leaves, 1 pod of cardamom, a clove, a cinnamon stick, some fennel seeds and a vanilla bean.

“Sometimes I add black pepper,” she said. After the tea steeped a minute or so it was ready. “I could add sugar or honey now, but I’ll let you add your own to taste,” she said, straining the chai into teacups and passing a pitcher of milk.

Sweetener is always added because it brings out the full flavor of the spices, she told me. Adding the milk is a habit picked up from the English. Indian grocers carry various spice mixes called “masala” that are shortcuts, but she likes to concoct her own variations. “If someone has a cold, I add a slice of ginger. If I want an herb tea, I might add basil.”

Her husband joined us in the kitchen. In India, chai fights the heat. It is part of everyday life, he told me. “There is a tea vendor on every corner, and they are on the streets and in the markets as early as 4 in the morning,” he said. People stop for tea on the way to work, when they want a break, any time. Where there is a crowd, there is a tea stall. Tea drinking is a social custom in India. Near the tea stall is often a bidi or cigarette stall. For a snack, there might be chickpea crackers or spicy nuts. The salty snacks are called “nam keen.”

He pulled a book of Indian photographs from a shelf and opened it to a page showing a typical tea vendor’s stall. It was a simple construction of bamboo poles propping up a canvas roof. On a low wooden bench was a chimney stove with an electric fan blowing on the fire at the bottom to keep it alive. On the grill above the fire was a big pot of boiling water to replenish the four or five blackened teakettles that were at the ready.

“Customers will drink four or five cups of tea (about the size of an espresso cup) at a sitting, so there might be 50 people at any one time hanging out, some squatting beside the stove, others sitting on the curb or on stacked bags of goods,” he said.

The couple laughed when she told us about a funny experience at a tea stall: “Arun and I met when we were students at architecture school in Gujarat. There are many official languages in India, and at first we were not familiar with the one spoken in the city. When I ordered tea on the street, I got an overflowing cup and a saucer full of tea. I thought the vendor was sloppy, but it happened at other vendors, too.

“Finally someone told me that an overflowing cup meant I was to share the tea with a friend, me drinking from the cup and him from the saucer. To get just the right amount of tea for one person in a cup, you must ask for a half-cup of tea. Each cup costs about four rupees or about 8 cents in American money.”

You asked us over for chai but you made tea, I pointed out. I was confused over what to call our drink.

“Chai is the word for tea in many parts of the world,” he said. Historically, those who received their tea by a sea route would call it “tea.” Those who got it by land called it “chai.” “Let me explain. Long ago the English bought tea from the Dutch East India Company, whose ships were the first to carry tea from China to Europe. The Dutch changed the Chinese word ‘te’ to ‘tee.’ The English changed the spelling of ‘tee’ to ‘tea.’ In China, tea was transported by overland shipping, and the word for tea used on that route was ‘cha.’ ‘Cha’ became ‘chai’ in some places and remained ‘cha’ in others.”

Any way you spell it, chai is delicious. On the way home, Ted and I stopped to pick up a quart of chocolate milk to make our own version of chocolate chai latte. Are you listening, Starbucks?

Chai my way

2 teaspoons loose tea

1 cinnamon stick

1 pod cardamom

1 clove

1 slice ginger root (the size of a nickel)

2 cups whole milk


Place 2 cups cold water, tea, cinnamon stick, cardamom, clove, ginger root and milk in a saucepan and slowly bring to a boil.

Swirl the mixture around until it reaches the desired strength and the spices release their aromas. Strain into tea cups and add honey to taste. It is best when it is very strong and very sweet.

Makes 4 servings.

Note: Some people prefer to add the milk after the tea has been strained and sweetened.


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