BUT FIRST, CHAI
Bring your stretchy pants and leave your shoes at the door.
‘Atithi Devo Bhava’ is the foundational mantra of our hospitality. This Sanskrit phrase carries the meaning ‘Guest is God’ and it’s taken very seriously. Just as offerings of food and drink are brought to temples as a means of worship, it is customary to treat those who visit our homes with the same generosity and warmth. From the host’s perspective, this is simply a way of appreciating the presence of their guest. To acknowledge the journey another soul has taken to be with you at that very moment is regarded as an act of true compassion. So, we will begin at the beginning.
“Chai?” I asked my mother as she looked up from the till in our shop. The first time I ever switched on a stove was to make chai. It was for my mother – an avid tea drinker and somewhat of a chai masala connoisseur. I was eight years old and had taken it upon myself to impress her with my tremendously grown-up skills. How hard could it be? I’d seen the classic pan on a stovetop method a hundred times before. I knew it had to be boiled a while after adding milk to cook off the flavour of raw milk. I knew this would also give the spices time to infuse. She tentatively wrote the instructions on the back of an empty paper bag, the kind we used for weigh-out sweets in the shop. Grabbing the handwritten square of paper bag emblazoned with the 90s ‘Trebor Bassett’ logo, she shot me a bemused look. Did she think I couldn’t do it?
After a mad dash up two flights of stairs, I pulled out the ingredients from the cupboard, my heart walloping as I thought about how freaking perfect this chai was going to be. Tea leaves, mum’s homemade chai masala, sugar and milk from the fridge all lined up like a battalion of toy soldiers ready to go into combat. This was it, my moment to prove I could make chai like all the aunties do. I filled our fatigued stainless steel chai pan with an unspecific amount of water and lit the stove. The crackle of the ignition reminded me of my morning Rice Krispies popping as soon as milk was poured on. Next, I added two teaspoons of black tea leaves and one teaspoon of chai masala. The steam began to waft, level with my nose and not under it, for I was a solid 4”5. Once it boiled, I added half a cup of milk and probably too much sugar. The water ceased to boil as the heavy cloud of milk rippled through it like a tornado. It looked right to me. As the tan-coloured liquid began to bubble at the edges, I knew it was show time. This is the moment it could all go wrong. You see, chai takes no prisoners when it comes to the boiling stage. If you take your eye off it for a moment, it can overflow and turn mum’s shiny cooker into a basin of brown sludge. I moved the dial on the old Hotpoint back and forth, causing the tea to rise and fall in sync with the intensity of the flame. It climbed higher towards the top of the pan as the flame roared louder, and then retreated into position when lowered. The tension mounted as I repeated the rise and fall action, suspicious it was controlling my breath. Inhale, exhale. In retrospect, making chai is a great prompt for practicing mindfulness. The chicken-shaped egg timer clucked to say my ten minutes were up and judging by the colour of the tea, it was ready. Gas off. The Forever Friends mug I picked out for Mother’s Day was of course, my drinking vessel of choice. A tea strainer went on top and I grabbed the pan handle with the sansi (pan holder). It took all my focus to pour the chai without spilling a drop. I could smell sweet cardamom, followed by the spicy ginger and black pepper that always ambushed the back of my throat. It was perfect.
As I meandered down the corridor, taking care to tread carefully down the stairs, I thought about how proud my mother was going to be. I got halfway down before a tiny wave of tea shimmied up the side of the mug and on to my thumb. The burn was well and truly felt. Not one to be put off my mission, I continued down the remaining steps and appeared into the shop. I handed over the mug like it was a very hot trophy. It was still too warm to drink so I sat on the step and told her all about my epic tea saga, being sure to leave out the details of my battle wounds so she wouldn’t say no to me making it next time. After a what felt like hours, she finally took a sip. I held my breath and looked on with eager eyes. “That’ll do, Poppet”, she said.
Tea making is more of a ritual than it is a recipe. There’s a process to it that’s simple and sacred. For Indians, it is not only the quality of the tea that matters, but also the masala blend and cooking process that determines the deliciousness of the cup. How one likes their tea is deeply personal and unique to them. In the West we may ask a guest if milk and sugar are required. With regular masala chai, both are a given, unless a sugar-free cup is requested for health reasons. These days it’s common to use plant-based milks as a vegan alternative to dairy milk. I find oat milk, almond milk and rice milk are all great options.
When making chai masala at home, there is no need to pre-toast the spices in a dry pan. Since this encourages the spices to release their natural oils, the aromas will simply dissipate as they sit in the jar. The heat from the spice grinder will also encourage the spices to develop. It’s best to make chai masala in small batches and to use it within 3-6 months. Store it in an airtight container, preferably somewhere cool and dark.
I’d like to welcome you by offering up a selection of my favourite styles of chai, including Ginger Chai, and a few other tealess hot drink options like Masala Coffee and Spiced Hot Chocolate infused with orange and fennel seeds. Make them for guests and of course, for yourself. Mind your thumbs.
Quick select rewards
Sanjana Feasts Apron
- Little Book of Masalas booklet containing eight recipes for homemade masalas, so good you'll want to use all the time
- Signed first edition hardback
- The ebook
- Your name in the back of the book
- Your name in the back of the book