Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Masala Chai

Recently, I’ve noticed a whole slew of my friends returning home to India, mainly in order to be closer to family. While speaking about this interesting and intriguing phenomenon, I was remarking to my parents that the last time that I actually lived in India was almost 20 years ago! Yikes!

In fact, the last time that I spent any substantial amount of time at home was the 3 months I spent in Bangalore before embarking on the tortuous journey of obtaining a doctoral degree. While these 3 months are considered summer in most parts of the Northern hemisphere, in India, the months of June-August constitute the monsoons. Now, when I start wanting to describe the Indian monsoons, I invariably want to write some poetry. However, the gap between what I hope to accomplish with poetry and what I'm actually capable of is too far to bridge in this blog post. So let me leave poetry to my betters and stick to the essentials.

Monsoons in India mean various things -- incessant rain, constant loss of electricity, and unfortunate flooding and loss of lives, yes. But monsoons also mean a lot of pleasant things. Firstly, the long awaited rains are a necessity and a blessing for the farmers, who pray that their farmlands will be nourished by this rain. (They’re also a blessing for the politicians in power, because a dry year generally leads to a loss in the following election cycle). When we were children, monsoons also meant colorful gumboots and splashing in rain puddles with friends, armed with tiny paper boats to float in the whirling eddies. But as one gets too old for gumboots and paper boats, the monsoons come to mean other equally pleasant things -- copious amounts of spiced chai, drunk on windy balconies, while listening to the distant growl of thunder and watching the dark monsoon clouds gather ominously in the horizon.

These monsoon memories of my youth have been supplanted by rain of a different kind…the constant, light drizzle of the Pacific Northwest set off by a relentlessly grey sky. But today, after a long and uncharacteristic dry spell, it is raining cats and dogs in Portland, accompanied by gusty winds and a very dark sky. This weather has brought to my mind the stormy Indian monsoons, save for the distinct lack of thunder and lightning. So, as I sit here and guzzle gallons of chai, I thought I’d share with you an easy method for making tea, the Indian way.

Traditionally, Indian chai is made by boiling tea leaves in water over the stove. It is also made with a variety of spices, some of which I find overpowering. A packet of tea spices that I picked up a long time ago lists aniseeds, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, pepper, cloves, and star anise as the ingredients. I prefer to stick to just cardamom and ginger. Chai is also generally served quite sweet – a lot sweeter than my recipe below. So, the recipe I present to you here meets none of the conditions of making traditional Indian tea, but it is extremely easy to make and tastes delicious. Feel free to modify the recipe, as per your tastes. Any black tea will work, but if you can get your hands on some nice Darjeeling or Nilgiri tea, this will make for a more authentic experience. Also, if you are going to consume gallons of this tea, like I do, I suggest sticking to skim milk.

Chai for one

Boil 2C water in a kettle or on a stove.

Add 2 heaping teaspoons** of loose tea leaves into a cup

Add 1/2 tsp sugar, 1 opened pod of cardamom, and a pinch of ginger powder

Add 1 C boiling water to tea and spices, and steep for 5 minutes

Add 1/3 C hot milk to tea mixture, and strain into a fresh cup

Heat for a minute in the microwave, if necessary

Enjoy hot with pakoras, steamed edamame, or sabudana vadas.

Ok, ok....I know a lot of my Indian friends are going to exclaim incredulously at making tea this way, so if you INSIST on making it the traditional way, here’s how you do it.

Boil 1C water with 2 heaping tsp of loose black tea leaves and your choice of spices.

After ~ 3 minutes of boiling, add 1/3 to 1/2 cup of milk to tea, depending on how creamy you like your tea

Add ½ tsp of sugar or more, as per your taste, and strain into a teacup

**The general rule of thumb for how much tea to add is to use 1 tsp per serving, plus 1 extra teaspoon. So for 2 people, you’d use 3 heaping tsp of tea leaves.

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