When Something as Simple as Chai Becomes Very Complicated

nutmeg Being what you are.

All those ancestors standing behind you.  The ghosts of grandmothers in dingy aprons, making tea daily.   At this point in my thoughts, you are everyone and everyone has tea in their family tree.  Deep in your memory stores, it could be tee, or chai or cha or te or chaj. Whatever it is, it is accompanied by a feeling of warmth, being cared for, honoring a stop in the day, recharging.  It brings a picture of a water kettle, a treasured pot and hopefully a familiar cup.  Tea cups were always well cared for and many families hand down cups for generations.  Lucky you, if you can remember how your grandmother or great grandmother liked her tea.

If I know people well enough, I know whether they are tea or coffee.  Green or black. Sugar or honey or none at all.  Lemon or milk.  Cold or hot.  Home or shop.

Until I was married, I drank either plain black (dare I admit, mom liked those Lipton bags) or green.  A pot was always made after meals.  We used cups that had no handles. I wondered how mom could drive a car without a death grip on the steering wheel, I couldn’t figure out how she could pick up a piping hot cup with no handle and not go ouch, ouch, ouch.  If I stop and remember slowly, I can see her using just her middle finger and thumb along the very top edge of the cup and the opposite hand would support the cup in it’s path up to her mouth.  Japanese folk are quite adept at slurping hot liquids without burning anything.  She also had a great exaggerated exhale after the first sip.  “Oh, that’s good.”   The simple things.

I was lucky to have my grandmother around my parent’s house once when I visited them. She was my dad’s mom.  Being at my parent’s house meant she was subjected to the same tea.  We called her Nana.  She was a jovial Irish woman, who loved to spread out on one end of the couch, pick up some crochet and watch her “stories”.  She could amass a twinkle in her that you could feel across the room and then would come the suggestion that a cup of tea would be nice.  “I’ll get it, Nana.”  She was a packet of the pink stuff and milk, which in that house was 2%.   It also meant digging up something sweet to go with it.  Maybe that was the balance for the artificial sweetner in the tea.

When I got married, I learned about different tea.  My mother in law is French Canadian and I gathered new information about tea from that branch of the family.  In New Brunswick, you either drink King Cole (pekoe) or Red Rose (black/pekoe).  It might depend on who you ask, but one thing is cement…..milk and sugar.  My husband remembers his Pepe (Grandpere) pouring his tea into the saucer and sipping it that way. He was blind and I assume that was a brilliant method of cooling.   My father in law’s family is Polish and his Babcia relayed to me how tea is to be sugared and drunk with lots of lemon.

So, here until recently was my adventure in tea land.  The most impressive parts are given by actual people who have meaning in my life.  All those stops at tea spots and ducking into boutique stores with tea up to the ceiling have nothing on an old Polish woman making tea for you.  I did find I like Earl Grey sometime in the 80s. My friend, Christine and I would sit up in evening hours making tea while kids played and our husbands drudged away the swing shift at work.  She had an American, home bred upbringing in the Pacific North West. Much different from me.  We ate different foods, but we could agree on tea and collect cups that seem to fit the job. 30 years later, I still have 2 cups purchased at a Dalton outlet. They get rotated out of the cupboard now and then and may one day meet their demise on the kitchen floor.  I won’t forget how it felt to taste Black Currant tea for the first time, though. Or the discovery of those little brown cubes of sugar, roughed up on their edges. I love how they leave a slurp of sweet in the bottom of the cup.

My in laws visited once to coincide with old friends who had come over from England. John and Kathleen were old farmers. My husband tells of working pigs on his farm as a teen.  I was nervous about everyone coming….in laws and international visitors…this could easily be an embarrassing memory if I wasn’t careful.  I knew what I liked and I remembered my mother in law’s admonishment about putting milk in Darjeeling. (oh whatever…) Most importantly, I remembered to serve milk with tea (and I managed points for: a. using a Brown Betty teapot , b. serving milk with tea and half/half with coffee, and c.buying good tea (PG Tips).  Kathleen was generous in thanking me for knowing the difference as her hotel experiences had already proven to be ridiculous, because “you should know that you don’t serve half and half with tea. This country is crazy!”

So, my logic is that what you experience in life gives you inspiration to grow.  This is true for tea.   I have had “chai”  in places…coffee shops, from tea bags, bottled.  Nothing compares to chai made by someone who herself grew up knowing the Indian way to make tea.  I don’t know for certain if she had access to grandparents, but I’m going to suppose that being Indian offers someone an organic path to how something is made.  And if you are going to make good chai, authenticity is key.  She showed me spices in round about amounts, into a pot, then the tea.  It was strained and raw sugar offered and full cream!  I took one for the road in a to-go cup and shared it with my daughters, warmed in the microwave.  We were all stunned.  And so I set off to make chai on my own, with no Indian aunties to guide me.

My first go was heavy on tannins (too much tea) and heavy on spices (just too much). Twenty or so pots later, I have found a nice middle ground and am confident enough to keep the parts of MY chai that make me feel like I own it.  I spent 4 years in West Germany as a little kid and maybe that where I find comfort in using fennel.  So, my chai has fennel.

I love good food and needed to decide where to buy these treasured spices without spending a college semester worth or cheaping out at the Mexican grocery spice aisle.  The little market next to our favorite Pho restaurant seems to be the sweet spot.  I am keeping in step with the necessary ingredients and at the same time, being open to the discovery that I have been doing something wrong all along.   Adjust and gambatte!  Here’s my chai method today.  It will change and I beg your tolerance…remember please that I was working with a cup of black and a handle less cup of green in my brain.

I fill my kettle with: 4 cups water (yesterday I learned about how milk fat works with spices that are fat soluble, so soon it will be half water/half whole milk) and 2 PG Tips Teabags(switching to Taj Mahal tiny loose leaf as soon as I get back to my little Asian market).  1/4 cup brown sugar (leftover from holiday baking, this is changing to raw sugar) and a whole vanilla bean (crazy expensive at about $1.00 a bean…..considering settling for a shot of bourbon vanilla instead).  crushed cardamom pods(have a great wooden mortar/pestle my husband got me in Haiti), palmful of fennel seeds(I can’t detect them in the finished product, but it makes it mine, so they’re staying), black peppercorns, whole star anise, cinnamon (cassia) broken in mortar/pestle, sliced gingerroot, cloves, half of a grated nutmeg nut. Boil, strain and for right now, we are steaming milk.  I’m looking forward to streamlining this by using milk from the beginning, especially if it enhances the spices.

I may never make it to India and I don’t think I will find it in my dna, but I think I like having chai and I appreciate the day that gave me the gift of discovery.

Cheers, Nena. image

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About kat9090

Hafu (Half Japanese), Late Discovery Adoptee, Sister, Mom, Daughter, Wife, I cook, look back, look forward, lean left, drive a lot, write a lot, wish a lot, I will be square with you if you are square with me. Find me on Instagram @shojikat and Twitter @biteme9090
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