It's been a while since I returned to one of my passions. I return to it now, after a conversation with a friend who said that he didn't like his tea boiled - that is, didn't boil tea leaves or leave them to soak too long, lest the brew acquire a bitter edge. Which got me thinking.
This bitterness of being lefttoolongtostewinboilingwater is an apt metaphor, a fitting frame for a redemptive brew. Of course, a bitter edge. That's what I like best.
Chai in India is not so much brewed as cooked. Boiled until all tender flavour has been sucked out; boiled until it can give no more. The pan must be allowed to simmer until the first lisp of bitterness begins to wet the water. It has to be held to the flame until indelibly stained with fingers of ginger or cardamom. That is what makes chai 'special' : sweetness laced with bitterness. A darkness that hints at muddied gold. That's what makes it refreshing.
Haven't you noticed how bitter the young are? How warm, how sweetly bitter, and how unsure of balance?
Having said that, I have to admit that I am firmly opposed to the concept of a 'proper way' of making a cup of tea. I discourage recipes because they seem to argue along those lines: so much of this, so much of that, a pinch of something and a spoonful of something else... that's just not the right approach to chai.
Tea is something you linger over. The days when I get up and make my first cup myself are days that begin with wafts of troubled decision. Curling into tighter and tighter rolls of 6.30 am, 7 am, 7.30 am, ohforgodssakegetup am.
Shivering sock-less in a January kitchen, riffle through cabinets for a flat-bottomed pan with a black handle. Take in a bleak morning and curse architects who don't think of sunshine when making windows. Fill a pan with water enough. Spill a little. Crush ginger. Toss it into pan. Fumble for the lighter, turn down the flame.
Walk into the balcony or to the nearest window, open it. Let cool fingers of morning brush your eyelids and cheekbones. Shut your eyes. Shake your head from side to side. Open your eyes and fix them upon the nearest inch of growing-green. Stretch where you stand until your toes groan under.
Go back to the kitchen, turn up the flame. Add two spoons of sugar. Pause. Add another half. Pause. Add another quarter. Watch the water turn a little bit cloudy. Add half a teaspoon of tea leaves. Watch the water turn a deep wine-red, then very quickly, something close to chocolate. If there was a variety of chocolate reserved for royalty, it would be this colour. The colour of 'laal-cha'.
Let water bubble. Like a simmering strain of black blood or the colour of life bleeding into the fabric of spring, speckled by tiny flecks the colour of earth. Pile another spoon with tea-leaves, knock it against the side of the jar so half is emptied back, throw it into the water. Watch it rise up, up, up to the rim of pan but never let it spill.
Black-earth-flecks balancing on foamy bellies of bubbles.
Turn down the flame and dip the spoon once more into the jar. Decide to add another half-spoon. Decide against it. Decide, finally, to add just a pinch more. Just to allow the delusion of inching towards perfection.
Step out and look for the newspaper, wherever it happens to have landed this particular morning. Listen for the guttural growl of the dog who lives upstairs.
Go back to the kitchen with fingers numb from holding a chilled pot of milk. Pour. Stir. Don't measure. Just as colours melt into each other. The milk pushing into the rich, steaming river, muddying it. If it is the colour and consistency of ditchwater, add a little more milk. Pour and simmer until the colour turns to the colour of nothing else you have ever seen. Not chocolate, not caramel, not soil, not cloud, not wine, not milk, not toffee, not multani mitti, not wood, not bark, not coffee, not skin...
Perhaps, perhaps, a certain kind of skin. It is possible, but it should be no kind of skin you have ever seen. Just at that particular moment, when it has turned to a colour and consisency that can be best described as nothing but 'chai', turn off the gas and reach for the strainer. Swirl the pan around a few times and pour a cup out.
Take it outside with the papers, or to a windowsill somewhere, hold it between both palms, close to your gut. Watch the loopy fingers of December reach down and lick their lips, hover at the rim. Stand on tip-toe for a moment, shut your eyes for a moment. Allow the morning to taste it before your do. Take a sip. Find your own pace, here on.
Chai 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7