15 August 2012


Today was my turn to provide treats for the weekly all-staff break. It was a chance to "re-live" some of the India experience, to share it with the nice people I work with. There is no more hospitable offering to honor friends and guests than chai. And so . . .

Our first 2 nights (and so, first 2 mornings) in India were in a very nice hotel in New Delhi, not far from the New Delhi train station. Busy part of town, not a great introduction (maybe) to the city. But a nice hotel, with a good breakfast buffet spread in the top-floor (literally, top floor; also, good) restaurant. Being a fancier of the English way of taking tea, it was a delight to serve myself a cup, beginning with warm milk, adding a tea bag, and (since we were in India) sprinkling in what I took to be chai spices. Funny, though, they weren't all that distinctly spicy.

Um . . . that was because it wasn't a bowl of spice, but a bowl of Nescafe. Yep, my first 2 cups of tea were spiked with regular coffee. OK, so that works at a couple of levels, but failed to be either English style tea or chai. But it was  great pick-me-up first thing in the morning!

So, our first chai came upon our arrival, on the 3rd day, our 1st in Varanasi, at the Kedar Guest House. And that was a revelation. This was our first Indian chai, and our first greeting with chai. Paying guests, we were also honored guests. We had piled into our rooms after a harrowing trip to this oasis, probably (I see now, in retrospect) ignoring the nicety of allowing our host to linger with us in the entry "hall." Crude Americans, I guess. We would later see how it was meant to be, when we arrived at our final hotel, in New Delhi.

Chai alone made me want to get up early and head up to the covered (roofed but open) dining area. There our cook, Lalmuni (I don't really know how her name is spelled, sorry), would  bring me a cup of chai while I read. And would bring a cup out to everyone as they arrived, whether singly or en masse just at the breakfast call time.

Chai was available at restaurants and cafes, but its availability first thing in the morning and at breakfast, and its offering as a welcome, captured not only my taste buds but my heart. I am a pretty committed coffee drinker. But - as noted above - in a place where most coffee is Nescafe, chai was a drink with integrity. And, tasty!

Two nights ago, here in Wheaton, our India team met for the first time since we returned on July 24. Item #1 on the agenda was Dr. Laurel teaching us how to make real chai.This is what I tried to make today for the staff break.

RECIPE (per cup)
* 2 Tsp tea leaves
* 1 Cup water
* 1/2 Cup evaporated milk
* 1 1/2 - 2 Tsp Sugar (or artificial sweetener)
* Spices (experiment with amounts, but probably not more than 1 Tsp per spice per cup)
First caveat based on my own experience today - Don't even put a tablespoon measure on the table; leave it in the drawer! Because NO INGREDIENT IN THIS RECIPE requires this amount. (Oops!)
Second caveat based on my limited experience - Limit your spices to 2 for any chai choice. Especially if one of those spices is cloves. (You will taste the cloves, and not the other spices. Sorry!)
Some spice options: cardamon; ginger; cloves; peppercorn. I guess nutmeg isn't necessarily used in India, but personally it's a taste I like in chai.
Third bit of counsel - you may want to lightly sweeten your chai for guests, and let them decide for themselves to add more. Just sayin'. (But if you are serving it to guests as they arrive, that is not practicable. Personally I like it a bit less sweet. But sweet is mmm mmm good.)

BOIL the tea leaves and water until caramel colored. Make sure you are using a pot/pan large enough to add the milk! Because, later, this is going to bubble up and is likely to spill onto the stove. (Trust me on this.) Add the spice(s) at this point.
ADD the evaporated milk and continue to boil until smooth. Give this some time - but watch for that potential boil-over! - and let the consistency get smooth and somewhat viscous. It is ideally a little bit creamy.
STRAIN You've already begun to wonder about all this stuff in the brew. You'll need a strainer of some kind. For small servings, this will be a cup-sized implement, and you'll ladle the chai into that. It will catch the tea leaves, spices, and any anxiety you might have spilled in there. For a larger container out of which you will pour multiple cups, just get a larger strainer - and a bigger ladle.

I'm looking for a chance to make a smaller batch of chai than I did today. Today's staff break called for 16 cups of sugar-sweetened, and 8 of Splenda-sweetened. Also, I think I'd like to use the coarser brown sugar, both in the preparation and as additional sweetening.Maybe the next time it is cool enough for my Karen's morning cup to be served up hot.

Finally, speaking of chai and hospitality, we were greeted at our final hotel, Shanti Home, in New Delhi. First the garland and the welcoming dot on the forehead, then the chai. And everything that followed in this lovely hotel lived up to the greeting. Namaste!
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