The recent downpours in Mumbai invoked the college memories of chai, that impeccable cup of milky brown brew, black tea steeped with ginger, cardamom and comfort. One typical gray June morning, a double-decker bus waded through the murky waters — ah, monsoons in Mumbai, you’ve got to love them! Pervasive dampness clinging to moist skin and polyester clothing, climbing petticoats under 6-yard saris, seeping through leather clogs.
Raincoats, umbrellas and gumboots are ineffectual in their battle with the pregnant clouds, unable to keep the virulent waters from invading the core of your being. I gingerly stepped from the bus into knee-deep water and waded to the entrance of the college canteen, joining my friends there, huddled together, deep in discussion on the upcoming practical (exam) on frog, earthworm and cockroach dissection. The gory details never bothered even the daintiest stomach as gulps of steaming hot chai provided tranquility against the angry downpour.
Chai is the lifeblood of India’s social, political and business gatherings. In a store selling silk saris, as you debate the choice of the flame red silk laced with gold or the midnight purple with a sea green border and green leaves, the owner will offer you a cup of hot chai in a stainless steel tumbler to enlighten your decision. Visit your best friend or close a hostile business deal, but first sip chai. Stroll down the dry streets of summer Mumbai or wade through a foot of standing water in the harsh monsoons, but always take a moment to sip chai, available on every street corner, hawked by vendors everywhere.
There are different variations on chai, but chai always means tea, so, if you will permit me two seconds on my soapbox, it would be redundant to say “chai tea.” It is chai, pure and simple.
Makes 4 cups
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh ginger
10 to 12 green or white cardamom pods
2 cups water
2 cups whole milk
¼ cup Darjeeling or Assam loose black tea leaves (or 8 tea bags)
¼ cup sweetened condensed milk or 4 teaspoons white granulated sugar
If you have a mortar, dump the ginger and cardamom into it and with the pestle, pound it a few times to release some of the juices and oils. Alternately, put the two ingredients into a mini chopper or food processor’s bowl and pulse a few times to break the spices down a bit and release those incredible aromas.
Bring the 2 cups water and the milk to a rapid boil, in a small saucepan over medium-high heat, uncovered, stirring regularly to prevent scorching. As soon as it comes to a boil, stir in the tea leaves and the pounded ginger-cardamom blend. Bring it to a boil again, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the milk’s color changes into a light brown tint and is scented with the strong, heady aromas of ginger and cardamom, 1 to 2 minutes.
Stir in the sweetened condensed milk or sugar and turn off the heat. Strain the chai into serving cups and serve piping hot.
Tip: Even though I have recommended ginger and cardamom, spices like ground cloves, cinnamon, and even black pepper are great sprinkled in chai. Add it at the same juncture you would the ginger and cardamom.
Top photo: The essential chai. Credit: Raghavan Iyer