Thursday, May 18, 2006

CHAI

Every day, at about four o’clock, my workmate Hugo, with an Englishman’s care, prepares a pot of tea. These days he’s been using Taj Tea, a gift from Rakesh, with just a pinch of Lapsong Souchong. He drinks it with milk, not cream, which would be an abomination, smacks his lips after the first sip, and proclaims, “Ah, the best fucking drink of the day.” I join him on occasion, and try to beat him to the mantra, but my heart’s not really in it. It is a good drink, but once you’ve tasted chai, the Indian version of tea time, nothing else quite makes it.

Chai is much more than a cup of tea, either the brewed, or the justifiably maligned dip-dip of hot water and a tea bag. It’s a little like what a latte is to a cup of drip, but it has a certain crudity that makes it like what cowboy coffee is to coffee.

The best versions of chai are not to be confused with the westernized version served by Starbucks, or any other high-end purveyors. To take it back to a coffee comparison, an up-scale version of chai, is like one of those soda-fountain coffees the person in front of me always seems to be ordering - you know the one’s I mean: double caramel amatiadoes – whatever they are.


In India, chai is a road-side attraction, and the quality of the chai may be in inverse proportion to the condition of the chai stand. It’s hard to tell, because chai stands tend to be ramshackle at best and downright primitive at worst. Granted, I write from a Western sensibility, and the stretch from working class (even white-collar) to primitive may only be from a permanent to a semi-permanent structure. Be that as it may, I’ve sampled chai at 5-star hotels where it’s been sanitary but totally lacking in character, to shacks equipped with little more than Bunsen burners and tin pots where the chai has been ambrosial, though the sanitation has been iffy, if existent.

My favorite chai stand sits on a concrete platform under a tree in Electronic City, in Gurgaon. It’s built of weathered lumber with a hinged flap of a door that opens up, and the cooking and service counter rolls out onto the platform. It’s barely larger than two office cubicles, but does such a knock-up Monday through Friday business the operator, Ram, closes on weekends.

Ram collects the money, deals individual cigarettes, and fries up the egg sandwiches, and has a 12 year old apprentice of sorts who is the chai-wallah and a young master of the craft. His equipment is basic: a propane burner, a battered tin pot with a lid, a ladle, and a tea strainer. Business is done with about a dozen juice glasses that are rinsed in a bucket of cold water.


The preparation is equally basic: an equal proportion of water to milk is brought to a boil. For each serving a tablespoon of loose black tea and two teaspoons of sugar is added with about a 1/4 inch of ginger-root crushed with an available rock, and a cardamom seed or two. The mixture comes to a boil, simmers for a few minutes and is strained into juice glasses. That’s it. The choreography is simple, as befits the task, but performed with grace. Our young wallah (not pictured)goes about his business with the style of a sleight of hand artist, or a maitre d’ preparing at table side, but, what separates him from either is his lack of self-consciousness. He’s not performing, he’s doing, and I think his dance of gestures is protection against the boredom of brewing a hundred glasses of chai a day. When he ladles the milk into the boiling water he does it from a height; he tosses the tea with a snap of the wrist; and he pours with the pot moving up and down in space. He’s intent and lovely to watch.

Chai is very sweet, very hot, and best consumed quickly. The technique is to hold the glass at top and bottom between thumb and index and middle-fingers, or with thumb and index finger around the top of the glass with your other fingers outstretched. The heat is what makes chai a safe drink. There’s no chai without boiling the milk and water, just don’t think too much about how the glass is washed.

But what about that glass of chai in the USA?

Well, it will never taste the same because there are certain givens that will always be missing: the quality of Indian tap water and milk, the unrefined sugar, the strong loose tea, and the ambience. Mid-afternoon with the sun in declension, sitting on a wooden bench under a Nim tree watching the passing parade of burros, cows, pedestrians, bicyclists, and SUV’s; dust swirling, and the din of generators supplying back up electrical power to the corporations doing America’s business; its work-a-day to the general population, but a slice of heaven to me.

Minus the ambiance, you can come close, though. Here’s how:

Bring a half cup water and an equal amount of whole milk to a near boil. Add a three fingered “pinch” of black tea – get it at an Indian shop if you’re lucky enough to have one near you, or use Earl Gray, the bergamot adds a nice touch. Add two teaspoons of Demerara sugar, a quarter inch slice of fresh ginger – crushed, and two cardamom seeds. Reduce the heat and allow to simmer until a film forms at the top. Strain into a glass, never a cup, and if you can, drink it outside.

Thick, rich, sweet, and a real kick in the pants first thing in the morning or four o’clock in the afternoon, and it is the “Best fucking drink of the day.”



Photos (except for the last) from www.flickr.com/photos/kesarpista and www.flickr.com/photos/run_talia_run/.

3 Comments:

Blogger anaxila said...

Another excellent post. That last picture commemorates my first Chai. I thought you were nuts until it cooled enough for me to drink it. Heaven.

2:33 PM  
Blogger Busker said...

If this is *my* Hugo Workman's-Care, he who makes cargo pants look good even on those British knees, that is such a perfect pic of the lad. Lord I miss those British muckers and those almost surreal concalls: "Neasden calling Delhi, come in Delhi." "Delhi here, did you receive our pareto charts and the breakdown of incorrect vowel usage in escalation calls?" "Roger Delhi. Did you receive our order for results of Bernoulli test and 2 tandoori, heavy on the raitha?" "Negative, Neasden." "Not good, Delhi. May need look into competitive bid by Light of India. By the way, charts fine. Passed off as our own. Big Boss most pleased. Note from Chris: agrees 100% on disputed umpire call: Prakash totally LBW. Over n out. Same time next week."

3:40 PM  
Anonymous Baraka said...

Wonderful post!

Warmly,
Baraka

3:32 PM  

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