One of the highlights of the Lassi & Spice menu is stovetop chai. We will have Masala chai, infused with seven different spices, and Karak chai, a simpler variety with strong black tea and milk. Preparing this chai will involve simmering the ingredients together, and I’ve been happily working on perfecting a recipe that delivers the exact balance of tea flavor, spices, creamy milk (and milk alternatives) and sweetness. Many Americans are familiar with chai as it’s served in most coffee shops: a concentrate that comes out of a tetra pak, which is diluted with milk and steamed in a pitcher. In my experience, this chai is too sweet and lacks the complex flavors of the homemade variety. And after seeing chai prepared at home and on the streets in India, it became clear that the tetra pak misses the whole point.
At a recent chai tasting at my house, a friend asked “what exactly is chai anyway?” Which is a very valid question. At its most literal, chai means “tea” in Hindi. So now you know there’s definitely no need to call it Chai Tea, which means “tea tea”. Interestingly, chai is nearly the same word as the Chinese chà, signaling that millennia of tea trade between the two countries. But it was the British East Indian Company and the colonizers’ long occupation of the continent that led to chai as the beverage we know today. The English imparted their taste for black tea, milk and sugar on the continent. Indians then made it their own then they began adding spices: cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, pepper, cloves. Today, every Indian household seems to have their own preference for the blend of spices (including holding the spices all together), favorite brand of tea, ratio of water to milk and teaspoons of sugar. But there's one thing everyone agrees on: proper chai is always, always cooked on the stove.
Marrying into an Indian family, I started learning the chai preparation technique as a newlywed. Some friends joked that you actually aren’t allowed to get married until you’ve at least mastered preparing chai. But my husband never cared for it, so it was up to my inlaws to introduce me to the ritual. And it IS a ritual. While they drink the simple Karak variety, it’s watched over carefully through every step of preparation. Sugar is spooned in to the drinkers' taste, no more, no less. The milk must not boil over. Tea leaves are added at just the right moment and boiled for just the right amount of time. There’s no cutting corners, and chai is an absolute must first thing in the morning (and then later, at tea time in the afternoon). It is a major part of every visit from our family. As the arrival day approaches, I will make sure we have a good stock of fresh black loose-leaf tea from the Indian grocery store switch out from the raw sugar in the sugar bowl for the fine white sugar they prefer. During their first days in Seattle, when the jetlag is persistent, my father-in-law will be at the stove a bit after 4 AM making chai for my mother-in-law. The small stainless steel saucepan and tea strainer are in heavy use throughout their visit, and I know when they’re up for the day when I find the delicate porcelain cups they prefer drying neatly next ot the sink. Chai first, questions later. My first question is whether there’s enough for me to have a cup, too.
Chai is fundamentally about hospitality, like all tea, and chai hospitality is a joy to offer and to receive. There is a 100% chance of being offered chai during any social visit with Indians! It’s served as steaming hot as possible, and when the gathering is casual, it can be poured into saucer a to cool, then slurped from there. But as delightful as chai is when enjoyed at home, the chaiwallah culture of drinking chai sold from street vendors is the most colorful of all. These culinary magicians cook chai over gas burners, or even coal-fired hot plates, theatrically flinging sugar, spices and tea leaves through the air into their enormous bubbling cauldrons. Patrons gather around to watch and wait their turn. The act of straining the boiling liquid and quickly pouring it into glasses, then cooling it by pouring it between glasses across the air, would drive OSHA to distraction. But it’s fascinating, drawing a crowd with the possibility of danger and the guarantee of deliciousness, a microcosm of India herself.
So how do you drink your chai? Lassi and Spice aims to channel this theater and mystique, embracing this hospitality and this theater and ultimately putting a delicious cup in your hand.
And speaking of putting chai in your hand, it’s looking like that will be possible in early December. We are counting down!