The Story of Chai

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“Chai! Chai! Garam chai!”

The cadenced plea echoes across the railway platform, jolting me from a restless slumber. I forget I’m on the top bunk and sit up too quickly, smacking my head into the ceiling above me. It’s not the first time I’ve done that.

I dig in my bag for a few rupees and, swinging my torso off the bunk, I dangle my arm through the iron bars of the compartment’s window. From my limited viewpoint, I only see the chai-whallah’s rusted trolley wheels and frayed, blue pajama pants, but I can hear him whistling as he prepares my drink. Soon, my rupees are taken gently from my fist and a warm clay cup settles in my palm. He softly closes his hand around mine, making certain I have a firm grip, and then shuffles away to croon his melodic overture, “Chai! Garam chai!”

Ahhh…I breathe in the chai’s heavenly scent, and the comforting aroma of ginger, cardamom and cloves immediately calms my crankiness of having traveled on an unhygienic, 13-hour, second-class train, where personal space is doggedly ignored – especially by the man on the neighboring bunk who stared at me for the first six hours of the journey. I sip the milky concoction and feel the liquid warmth slowly spreads through my limbs, reviving my body and spirit as only a humble cup of chai can do.

Chai – The Fuel of India: In India’s chaotic and emotionally draining climate, chai serves as an anchor in an exceptionally stressful environment. When the incredible heat, annoyances, sadness, poverty and filth become too much, the smells, taste and simple act of enjoying chai calms the sensory overload, making it somewhat of a security blanket for travelers when a bottle of red wine can’t be found.

Ubiquitous to India, chai is the invisible glue that ties everything – and everyone – on the continent together. Across caste, religion, diversity and color, everyone is bonded by this simple fusion of tea leaves and spice.

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It can be found everywhere; the chai stands being omnipresent and serving as veritable social centers at bus stations, train platforms, guest houses, street corners, high-end restaurants and dirt-floor cafes. Similarly, all business matters begin with a cup of chai. While browsing stalls for textiles or pretty gems, shop owners are quick to offer tea, and societal norms dictate that bartering cannot begin until after the chai-whallah rushes in and everyone gathers around a mismatched set of cups and saucers. During my first trip to India, my travel mate and I wondered just how many cups of chai we could consume in one afternoon simply by wandering from shop to shop. We made it to seventeen before the overload of caffeine and sugar convinced us to call it quits for the day.

I can’t recall how many times strangers have invited me in for chai and a discussion about American politics, the Bulls and other sports teams, or my marital status. Sometimes not a word is said, the simple exchange of smiles and family photos being enough to spark a warmhearted moment. Once in a while, – to my chagrin – the conversation turns to monetary requests as a worn, plastic-coated letter explaining a son’s schooling needs or a mother’s looming operation is handed to me. More often though, the invitation is just a welcoming embrace of curiosity and acceptance, where cultural and language barriers dissolve and human kindness is at its best. And, during a long train journey, chai resets the chakras and gives me a bit of patience to endure another five hours on India’s rails.

The making of chai: Masala chai is a mix of spices, generally ginger, cinnamon, star anise, fennel seeds, peppercorn, nutmeg and cloves; black tea leaves; and milk. No, tea bags are not used, and that Starbuck’s Chai Latte is not a real Indian chai – sorry to disappoint you!

The making of chai, though quick and efficient, is actually a well-choreographed, intuitive dance of ingredients. Squatting over open, glowing coals, the chai wallah heats water, thick buffalo milk and several generous pinches of black tea leaves in his dented, black pot. A few cardamom pods, or the chai-whallahs own blend of spices, are thrown in to give the chai that unique flavor and depth. As the mixture begins to boil, in go several spoonfuls of course sugar or a slice of jaggery, a block of brown sugar found in rural parts of India. The chai has to be unduly sweet, of course. Then, off of the coals comes the pot and the aromatic concoction is poured into whatever chalice happens to be nearby. Watching chai being made is almost as neat as enjoying the result – almost.

Here’s an excellent recipe for making your own homemade chai. Try experimenting with using different types of tea leaves, sweeteners and milks. (Note that Almond and Coconut milk don’t really make a great tasting chai!)

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