Monday, December 19, 2011

Tea aka Chai---Desi Ishtyle: An Insight into a desi's Chai.

Tea is an important thing in every Desi's life. A man and woman meets for the first time, in case of an arranged marriage, the girl serves him Tea. If they are in love and want to get married, they meet somewhere over a cup of Tea. After marriage the guy expects and hopes his wife gives him a cup of Tea, in the morning...and it is what he gets with an added smile, when he comes home in the evening, tired, if he's lucky!
Its what kids drink to stay awake and study, and its what you are given by a loved one if you are sick. Its what you serve the guests, its what you drink when no one's at home. And in addition to all these occasions Indians still drink tea, at least 2 more times, just like that!
But that kind of tea-guzzling Indian, gets shocked at least once in their life, when they drink a regular, normal International tea, that is made with a tea bag, in a cup of hot water. And that one shocking experience may be passed on to the next 3 generations and anyone who is willing to hear, as one of the most disgusting humiliating incidents they ever experienced. No......I'm not exaggerating! I have heard at least half a dozen of these traumatizing stories (not incidents) from the poor folks who were victimized by  Air hostesses, Baristas or enthusiastic foreign friends who wanted to serve the Indian friend a cup of welcoming tea.
And the truth is you just cant blame the poor victim here. Its just like giving an Italian a slice of Jain Pizza and watching his reaction By the way a Jain Pizza is a pizza made without garlic, onions, or anything that grows under the ground and absolutely no meat. It still is very delicious, but that is another story, that we will revisit later. Now back to Chai...
Indians were raised on Tea, made the same way for generations. Every home has a "house tea" and when girls go to their husband's homes, they teach themselves the new "house tea" recipe. And even a slight change in the recipe can make it taste like someone else's "house tea"!!

A good tea @ MMP starts with Fresh Ginger and Cardamom...

And with all the variations and "house secret recipes" the basic chai recipe is made the same everywhere (in India that is!) And that recipe is different from the rest of the world, which is why in the first place, the tea-guzzling Indian gets a 440 volt shock when he tastes a tea from elsewhere.
Becauzzze, In India, tea is not brewed, not delicately dipped in a tea bag or steeped in water in the sun...nay, nope, na, mm-hmmm!!! Its souped! (Is that even a word?) Its like a thick soup made from milk, tea leaves, sugar, some spices and water. No desi worth his salt drinks tea made from creamers or Hot water mixes, as far as I know....or maybe I hang out with like minded nuts....that's a possibility!
The Indian Chai is made from Assam or Darjeeling Teas, that is sold in big kilogram sized, foil-packed, vacuum sealed, and whatever else boxes. Every home has their Red label, Society or Girnar tea leaves refilled regularly like milk or flour. The strongest tea leaves are used in South Indian teas (the kind that makes the dead rise) and the delicately mild are used as you go toward the North.
The use of milk also differs from home to home, just like sugar. But every Indian has their tea with milk and sugar, that is for sure.
Now once you have got a tea that you like, half the battle is won, because that is one helluva competitive market. Then you find a steel vessel, sauce pan, kettle or whatever. That's not important but a tea filter is! You could find a cheapo colorful, plastic version that will filter out the minute dust teas efficiently, or you could get a more dignified stainless steel one that is a little more kind-hearted in letting some tea dust escape, but is more suitable for tea leafs.

Fresh Ginger, pounded the heck out of, in my trusty bamboo Mortar/Pestle Set

The water is boiled and the special additions that contributes to the special "house tea" is added first. Some add a special clove-cinnamon-cardamom mix, whereas some stick to fresh crushed/grated ginger. And dont be under the impression that the cooking is done. It has just started...once the ginger is cooked an every last bit of its essence is squeezed out by the hot boiling water, tea leaves are added, and then every house has its rules on when to add the milk. Some wait until the leaf has given up every last bit of color it can give to the tea (means super strong) and some let it stay in water only until they can measure out the milk.

See what I told you... no tea bag soaked in hot water can give you ^THAT!

Now, the milk that is used has to come from a cow, usually. And its also boiled (as in pasteurization) before its added to tea. As a result the tea is deliciously milky and overrides any bitterness of tea, that results from boiling the tea leaves. Now comes the sugar. Every Indian likes sugar on tea unless any health reasons prevent them from drinking it that way. And my South-dwelling grandma loves it just sweetened enough, twice every day and my Mumbai-ite childhood friends had tea liberally sweetened and sipped it, slurping loudly, more than a couple of times, but in smaller amounts, at their homes.
And if there's a last thing that goes into the tea that's the aromatics---the tea masala, or the crushed cardamom! One good stir and the hot angry tea is filtered into the waiting tea filter directly on to the tea cups. That's another area of importance. Irrespective of caste, creed, economy or geography, Indian use tea cup-saucer sets, made of porcelain/china. These heavy cups, shield fingers from the hot tea and also give that weighty comfort that you can only get from using heavy china and not to mention the fun factor. The tea can be slurped from the cup, or poured into the saucer to cool it down or to share and then slurped, or just slurp and irritate someone senior and get smacked or yelled at. There are also "cutting" glasses, these short thick glasses they serve at myriad tea stalls all over, anywhere, in India. In the south you will get a cooler version of the tea in a charming steel tumbler set; the tumbler, nestled into a matching bowl, so that you can cool down your tea and drink it, or merely use it as a holder for the hot tumbler.
Any which way, making an Indian tea is pretty fool proof, but making the respective house-tea? Very tricky!
I remember, when i was a fresh bride, learning the ropes from my MIL, my tea was strong at first, for them and I learned the way to make perfect tea for in-laws soon, but in the enthusiasm, I kind of un-learned my Mom's house tea, and my brother still wont drink tea if I make it, because its never strong enough! Hrmphhh! Whatever!
Once I established my own kitchen my "house-tea" has evolved and now doesn't resemble either of the house-teas I learnt and un-learnt. But maybe that's what growing up is all about....making your own tea, and getting to teach the next generation, what to get acquainted with and what to make a face at, creating the next edition of tall Tea tales! ;-)

Here's how I make our very own version of Chai: It will serve 2, generously, and tad on the heavier side. It is usually the first thing we drink on a morning...and will keep our tummies non-growling until breakfast is served...which of course will be served only to the clean-teethed and clothed ones.

1 1/2  cup water, cold, clean and filtered
1 1/2 cup milk (skim milk. If you are using whole milk, its makes the best tea and use only 1 cup with 2 cups of water)
Fresh grated Ginger---about 1 tbsp
Cardamom seeds---from 4 cardamoms, pounded or ground, fresh.
Loose Tea Leaves---2 tbsp (pref Red Label)
Sugar---2 tbsp
Boil water in a sauce pan, and add the ginger to it. When it boils, add the tea leaves and sugar. Stir well.
Now add the milk. Bring it to a boil. Stir in the cardamom seeds and filter it, into your preferred tea cups and enjoy with some savory snacks or biscuits (cookies)!!!

Now only if Starbucks and Airline kitchens could read this post!!! :-P

***A big thanks to my fellow blogger and dear friend Rajani for her post that got me thinking on Chai! ***


  1. I never thought somebody could write so much about a simple chai.. Good going Nish! I liked it..
    Yeah our house has 2 versions of house teas.. mine and my husband's:-)


  2. Thanks Sis...Happy you liked the Post. Our have evolved to be a mixture of mine and his. ;-)