Monday, January 28, 2008

A Recipe for January mornings

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


Anonymous said...

This pic should make you happy!

Anonymous said...

chai.. mmm! i could have another cup to kickstart a dreary monday morning!

dipali said...

Love your chai posts!
Chai becomes a religion, practically:)

Arun said...

Never thought that Chai can be such an experience! In fact I had started to ditch tea for coffee.

Tomorrow morning an experiment is going to happen in my kitchen!!

thanks :)

Rachna said...

I just loved the imagery..

especially, the non-colors...

Almost, but not quite, exactly unlike tea...

D said...

I'm not a tea person - never enjoyed the taste of tea actually. But the experience of just holding your morning cuppa tea, I miss it!

Anuja said...

not chocolate, not caramel...
pure poetry! sigh

Anonymous said...

U should write a cookbook:):):)

Deepa said...

Hi Annie,

Your blog wanted me to go get a cup of tea myself, immediately! though I would like to share my way of making tea which I find easier and better.
Mix water and milk in pan, bring to half-boil, add tea leaves/dust, sugar and crushed ginger(+cardamom, if you like), bring to boil, then simmer for 3 minutes. Strain and you have a delightful cuppa! :-)
Do let me know if you like it, in case you try it, of course!

Your's Truly said...


Don't measure.. one spoonful, another half, another quarter... I must agree some of the parts are my absolute favorites and would like to come back and read them again sometime.

You are a cook inside. I love the true spirit of one. And you are right - recipes suck. They are like plagiarized symmetric geometrical shapes against God's natural landscapes in the world of food.


Annie Zaidi said...

chai shot: it did make me happy
busybee, pottan, rachna, anuja: thanks :)
dipali: thanks, and it is as good a faith as any other, i think
d: all people are tea people. just a question of figuring out which tea.
pawan, ashwini: thanks again. don't really cook, though.
deepa: that sounds more like the tapri chai. will get it.

Kits said...

I felt u said so much more than just abt chai and perhaps I am reiterating something u knew when u wrote tht post :)

Unknown said...

Last week I gave up coffee. I feel better for it, but the mornings are lonely without a wisp of steam curling before me as I watch the sun rise over the skyline. I think I will begin a new affair with chai.

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