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It's a Tea With Cardamom Sort of Day

Thursday, September 27, 2007

I learned to like tea in India. Before that, I really didn't care for any caffeinated beverages, with the possible exception of an extremely occasional Sprite or 7-Up. My dad drank coffee, not tea, and my mom drank, well, um, she drank water. Lots of water.

In India, tea is such an integral part of the culture, it would almost have been impossible to avoid developing a taste for it. There is "tea time" twice a day at the school where we worked, as well as in every home that I visited there. If you were to visit someone, the first thing they would do would be to offer you some "chai", even if they were so poor that it meant using up the last of their milk to do so.

Here is where we in North America have made an error. (My Indian readers, please correct me if I'm wrong.) To us, "chai" has come to mean "tea with milk and sugar and a whole variety of spices." In reality, "chai" is the word for "tea." I was going to say "Hindi word for tea," but it's actually the word for tea in every Indian language that I know of, and I believe it is also the word for tea in some African languages. Which language it originated from, I have no idea. Especially since chai with lots of milk and sugar was a drinking custom introduced by the British during the colonial days, since that is how they like their tea.

"Tea with spices" is known as "masala (spiced) chai," and the type of spices used range in variety and quantity, depending on what area--and what household--you are in.

Most of the time while I was there, we simply had chai, which is loose tea in a base of about half milk and half water and a fair amount of sugar, all heated until just barely boiling, then strained into your mug for a cup of creamy goodness. It is a safe way to drink milk of questionable origin, water of questionable origin, and a social custom that bonds families, friends, and strangers. (I remember my shock the first time I saw my friend Chingluan pouring tea back and forth between two mugs to cool it off for her daughter--who was two at the time!)

I'm not sure the reason why, but it was somewhere around 2000 that "chai" became extremely popular in North America. Thus Jason and I began our search for "the perfect chai," the one that would bring back all the flavour and memories we had come to love while in India--our hearts' other home country.

It was a long and disappointing search. We found a few that were close, but still seemed like someone had just gone a little crazy with throwing in anything from the spice shelf. I couldn't figure out why. Finally, when George and Ruth Peters visited us in 2005, I asked Ruth.

"How do you make chai? And what is the spice that you put in it?" She answered that while she usually just made basic chai, occasionally, she would add a sprinkle of cardamom to it (thus elevating it to "masala chai.") This was the answer we had been looking for!

I just about choked when I saw the price of the stuff. I don't know how it compares overseas, but here, cardamom is twice as expensive as every other spice (with the exception of saffron, which is just expensive everywhere.) Fortunately, I really only had one use for it. Each cup required only the tiniest sprinkle for flavour, so in six years, I think I might still be on my first jar. Partly because I soon discovered that I like the tea without cardamom as much as with it, and it became a "luxury" that I rarely partake in--and Jason feels the same. Tea drinkers that we are, our day is usually masala-less--at least as far as tea is concerned!

I'm not sure what possessed me this morning. Most days, I make a "cheater chai" that does not require the mess of loose tea and straining. It is not as strong as the real stuff, but nearly as good. I steep my tea bag (Lipton Red Rose Orange Pekoe is the best we've found) extra-long, throw it out, add a good-sized glob of honey from a teaspoon, then fill the mug up with cream until the colour is pale and delicious-looking. Then I take that first, satisfying sip.

This morning, though, I looked at the concoction in my mug and said "it's a cardamom sort of day."

Some days, the routine of dressing and feeding a family, getting Jude to school on time, making dinner ahead of time, teaching piano lessons all evening, doing dishes, working on my e-Bay business, being wife, mother, nursemaid, teacher, babysitter, friend, daughter, and all my many other hats can just seem overwhelming--like there is no way to live up to it all. Those are the days when my loving husband lets me have a little time to myself to create something beautiful, or go on a walk, or when a well-timed hug from my babies can turn a really stressful day around.

The cardamom was just the perfect touch on what would otherwise have been an ordinary, everyday-sort of cup of tea. Once in a while, all we need is a little masala to put things in perspective.

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6 comments

  1. I found my way here by Googling "alfalfa sprouts toxic".

    Really enjoy your blog. GREAT info. We have a whole lot in common. :)

    Staci

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  2. Wow, you are quite the chai expert. I am quite an atypical Indian that way - hate the stuff.

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  3. Brings back good memories of your place out at the lake, T!

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  4. Mom - You know it! Or you would, if you actually drank tea!

    Staci - Of all the people who have hit my blog with that search term, you are the first to drop a line and say hello. Thanks for commenting! And do come by anytime. I've skimmed your blog a little, and I'm sensing "kindred spirit" in the air.

    Rohini - Hah! That's funny. But not unheard-of, I suppose! ;-)

    Dawn - Mmm. Good times. Also, pop over to Staci's (see above). She's got some good stuff on there.

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  5. I do TOO drink tea....it's just the herbal kind!! :p
    The other makes me hyper-er!
    LY

    ReplyDelete

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