My earliest memories of chai are not of drinking it, but dunking in it.
As a child, we weren’t allowed to indulge in this adult-only staple of most Indian households. However, when our parents felt generous, we did get to occasionally dip our biscuits in their morning cuppa. Or even let a couple of almonds soak at the bottom, while they read those boring newspapers, only to have the nuts warm and chai-spice blanched by the time they got through their cups. We had a system, I used mom’s cup and my brother got dads’. And such days were special. For not only were we allowed a taste of tradition, but also got to sit beside them, like adults, in this morning routine – a routine we often considered so secret that we were convinced it was this very time all discussions barred from our tiny ears took place. It was when the parents plotted our punishments, reviewed our school performances, criticized those friends they didn’t approve of, and in our case, contemplated if we should be sent to boarding school. And here we were, dunking our Parle-G biscuits in their tea, getting an opportunity to eavesdrop. Oh, bliss.
A cup of masala chai is also reflective of the most affection we saw amongst our parents. Hear me out. It’s not like our folks never cared for each other. They sure did. But in a typical Indian fashion, any display of endearment in front of the kids was a big no. But on special occasions such as valentines, birthdays or anniversaries, we witnessed a vibrant ritual. A day when dad would make tea for mom, as opposed to the customary other way round. As he pranced around the kitchen, humming a tune, and probably making a mess, the tea was accompanied with the choicest of cookies to go along. He didn’t kiss her, but he did pour all his feelings into this warm labor of love, and watched with bated breath as she took the first sip. They also shared one cube of sugar between their cups, since each wanted an exact half-teaspoon. The cube would rest on a spoon and be dipped into one cup till it melted half way, and then find its way to the other. Adorable, if you ask me now. And while we weren’t particularly a part of this celebration, my brother and I would wake up early, giggle in hushed voices, and sheepishly watch. It was our simple introduction to feelings.
Today, I chuckle as I try to teach my husband the art of creating that enamouring flavour, and can’t help but reminisce. From our very first biscuit dunk, to the first official cup of tea as adults, there are more memories associated with that spicy aroma, than all other incidents in life combined. The fondest family road trips meant numerous street-side stops, sometimes as often as every hour, for adrak (ginger) chai and homemade cucumber cheese sandwiches. Cold winter shopping sprees with mom, on the grimy streets of Delhi, were unofficially planned around the location of the best chai waalas (vendors). No lecture or rebuke was over, till the tea was called for. It was our sure shot signal that the anger had subsided, and we will soon be dismissed. And that dreaded sound of the stirring teaspoon meant that it was daybreak, and mom would come barging into the room, draw the curtains, and give us that tight morning hug in the hope of spending every minute of the school holidays with us. A hug that we then shrugged and shrieked at. An under-appreciated moment that makes me weak in the knees to think about today.
So, as my husband and I embark on a new journey this year - the emotional journey that is parenthood, it only seems fair to commemorate it all with an unfailing cup of masala chai - and of course share that recipe with you.....
A cup that took me many iterations to master. A cup that holds more meaning to me than life itself. A cup that bursts with memories at the very first whiff. A cup that reminds of my mother’s uncomplicated smile, of dad’s relentless jokes and of conspiracies with my brother. A cup that moulded relationships. A cup that is forever family. A cup that taught me about love.
And I can’t wait to have our little one create timeless stories in that ...very ...cup.
Recipe: Indian Masala Chai
Ingredients (makes 2 cups)
1.5 cups water
1 cup whole milk
3 cloves, crushed
2 green cardamom, crushed
2 teaspoons fresh ginger root, grated
3 teaspoons Indian black tea leaves (use the loose tea, not tea bags)
2 teaspoons brown sugar (or to taste)
Plenty of patience
Bring the water, sugar, ginger, cardamom and cloves to a boil. Add the tea leaves, and boil for another minute of two, till the color gets intensely dark. Slowly add the milk, and bring to another boil. Make sure you’re watching or the tea might boil over! Reduce heat and let the mixture simmer for 10-15 minutes, till it reaches a dark caramel color, stirring once every 5 minutes. Use this time to bring out your favorite cookies, grab a book, and get ready for the tea of no return.
Once ready, cover the tea for a few minutes and let the flavors infuse. Strain into cups, and enjoy piping hot, preferably with a loved one.