again the emerald green pallu of her sari
tucked in at her hips, across her breast,
and cough it up over her shoulder a hush
of paprika and burnt honey across my face.
— from ‘Wrap’ by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
India is unrelenting and wildly beautiful. It is an endless array of colour and scent and sound, a byproduct of the sheer density of population. It is also a geographic rainbow, from rolling tea hills to dry desert, high buddhist enclaves at the foothills of the Himalaya to incense-wreathed Hindu temples, the bustling metropolis of Mumbai to long stretches of sand and ocean down south. The one consistent thread, the soundtrack of India if you will, is the chai-wallah call to arms: chai, chai, coffee, chai, chai…
Historically, masala chai didn’t actually contain tea leaves at all, but was an ayurvedic drink comprised of various cleansing herbs and spices. After the British colonials began planting tea plantations in the early 1800s, masala chai in its current incarnation – complete with black tea, spices, milk and sugar – appeared. It was not until almost a century later though, in the early 1900s, that the British started to promote tea consumption amongst Indians themselves, and the drink’s popularity spread like wildfire. Today, it is ubiquitous throughout the country.
I learned a few things early on during my first trip to India: the masala chai made by the street-side chai wallah’s is always better than from a tourist-style cafe; drink it hot, sweet, and multiple times a day; not all masala chai is made equal – the busier the chai wallah stall, the better their tea; the best way to drink a masala chai is squatting on the curb or perched on a stool watching the world pass by (this is also, incidentally, a great way to strike up conversation).
A dedicated coffee drinker, during my travels in India I happily exchanged it for masala chai. Served street-side in expresso-sized cups, I got in the habit of drinking masala chai throughout the day – first thing in the morning after leaving my guest house, whenever I found myself in a new market or street or leaving yet another temple, and in the evening before heading back to sleep. Cups of masala chai were the punctuation to my days wandering through India, small moments of calm and respite amongst the unknown.
I spent most of my time in India in Rajasthan, the Land of Kings. In India’s north, Rajasthan is predominantly Hindu. Eminently photographic, Rajasthan is also the India so often seen in tourist brochures and adorning the walls of homeware stores – camels in the desert, bright saris and flashes of golden bangles, regal tigers prowling through grassland, crumbling palaces in various states of repair.
One of the most endearing towns I visited in Rajasthan was Bundi, a relatively small village whose laneways meander down hills affording sky-swept, kite-scattered views of the rooftops, with temples and bazaars at every turn. The houses are painted a dusty shade of sky-blue (because, I was told, that was the cheapest paint colour), and the crumbling, overgrown Taragarh Fort on the edge of town is testament to historical grandeur. One legend has it that the royal treasure is still hidden somewhere in the fort, the knowledge of its exact whereabouts long dead. Bundi’s other claim to fame is that Rudyard Kipling, a young journalist when he first visited, settled there for a time and wrote part of his famous novel Kim.
The best masala chai that I remember drinking across my months in India was in Bundi, made by a quiet-spoken man named Ganesha (his namesake, of course, the elephant-headed, multi-armed deity of letters and learning). Watching Ganesha make masala chai was an act of love – squatting over a small gas stove, he would bring pots of chai to a boil time and again, pouring them effortlessly into small silver cups, never spilling a drop. It was heavily spiced, milky and sweet, and utterly delicious. I spent about ten days in Bundi, wandering and writing and taking photos, and I spent a good part of every evening across those ten days sitting next to Ganesha, enjoying his chai and watching as school kids walked home, stall holders started packing up, and families readied themselves for the night.
My recipe for Masala Chai below is pretty traditional (except for the rose petals, which W insists in adding and which do add a lovely floral note). I also like it heavy on the ginger to give it a spicy kick. You can use either a spice grinder or a mortar & pestle to make your masala chai mix; I prefer the tactility of the latter. There is a deep sense of satisfaction in grinding spices by hand, releasing their colour and aroma into the air. And I always brew my tea in a pot on the stove with the milk (rather than in a teapot), redolent of the masala chai I drank all across India.
You can check out some of my pics from various India trips here.
The chai mix below will last in a cool, dry place for weeks. When it comes to brewing, I aim for a scant tablespoon per cup of liquid.
8 tbsps loose leaf black tea (assam or ceylon)
2 tsps black peppercorns
2 tsps ground cardamom
1 tsp ground cinnamon
36 green cardamom pods
3 star anise
2 cinnamon sticks
2 tbsps dried rose (optional)
3 tbsps chai mix
1 cup water
2 cups milk (almond, coy, coconut, cows)
Fresh ginger, to taste
Brown sugar or honey, to taste
Using a mortar & pestle, or a spice grinder, crush the peppercorns, cloves, star anise and cinnamon sticks until fine. Using the mortar & pestle, or simply the flat of a knife, smash the cardamom pods. In a jar or canister, combine the black tea, the crushed spices, the cardamom pods and the dried rose. Store in a cool dry place.
When you’re ready to brew, combine the tablespoons of chai mix along with the water and milk in a small saucepan over a low heat. Add thin slices of fresh ginger, to taste (I like it heavy on the ginger so use approx. a tablespoon per cup). Cook over a low heat, taking care to ensure it doesn’t boil over. The longer you cook it for the stronger it will be, but between 6 – 8 minutes should do the trick. Add sugar or honey, to taste, and enjoy immediately.
Serves: 3 – 4