When I was nineteen, I launched my very first entrepreneurial enterprise: I started a very tiny chai-making operation. I made it in my mother’s kitchen, bottled it in gallon-size milk jugs, and delivered it in the basket of my old, avocado-green Schwinn bicycle to my single client: the coffee shop where I worked at the time. I was inspired to make chai because I had a life-altering cup of it from another young company: Nub Chai. Theirs was pretty mind blowing: it packed a ridiculously strong ginger punch, and was teeth-achingly sweet with the rich, molasses flavor of whole cane sugar. You know what they say about imitation being the sincerest form of flattery? Well, my little enterprise was just that. I wasn’t really trying to make my own mind blowing cup of chai. I was trying to recreate theirs.
Fast forward two years. At twenty-one I was confused and restless and searching, intently, for some kind of meaning or bigness or system or structure. I don’t know what I was looking for, but I was having a hard time finding it. A friend and I schemed a three month trip to India. It was probably the craziest thing I had ever done. It was certainly the most brave and definitely the most foolhardy. And we did it. We spent three challenging, difficult, overwhelming and eye-opening months in India.
By far my favorite thing about those three months was traveling the country by train. It was an experience unto itself: a world-in-miniature happening in motion. Most of the train windows didn’t have glass; they were just rectangular spaces with a metal grate, which made me feel closer to the landscape outside the car. It was a more subdued way of observing the culture, considering that nothing was censored along the tracks. Whole shanty towns sprung up along the edges of stations, and so many of the rituals of living – cleaning, cooking, fighting, sleeping and shitting – could be witnessed from the train window.
At all hours of day and night, a parade of sellers would pass through with all kinds of sweets and snacks and chai and coffee. The chai wallah called out loudly: chai, chai; chai, chai, over and over. It was often served in little earth-colored clay cups, and they were meant to be smashed on the tracks when you finished. I loved those little bowls and brought a few home, but I have no idea where they are now.
I hadn’t made chai for years before coming upon this recipe from my friend Rachel. It tastes best if you add the milk and let it simmer all together for a little bit, as this recipe does. It’s rather making me fall in love all over again. And writing about India makes me want to go back there – it’s the first time since going, so very many years ago, that I’ve had any desire to return. I need to gather some more of those clay cups.
Perennial Plate’s recent video on a day in India does a pretty spot-on job of capturing the sense of the place.
And Darjeeling Limited captures that surreal, detached world that happens so uniquely on the train in India so very well.
5 one-inch slices of ginger
1.5 cups water
4 whole cardamom pods, crushed
4 black peppercorns
1 stick cinnamon
4 teaspoons loose black tea, such as Assam
1/2 cup milk of choice (I used almond milk)
2 tablespoons honey or sugar
In a saucepan over medium heat, add the ginger slices and water. When the water is hot, but before it begins to boil, add the cardamom pods, peppercorns and cinnamon. Once the water boils, add the black tea and turn off heat. Cover and allow to steep for three to four minutes.
Heat the pot over a medium flame once more, and add the milk and honey now. Let the mixture simmer for another three or four minutes. Turn off heat, and serve.