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Sugar and Spice and Everything Chai

Chai-recipeThe dust ascended in small circular eddies at the edge where the train embankment met the jade rice paddies. The humidity battened down as the sun waned, determined to outlast us all. Its breath stifled movement: the unhappy baby gave up wailing to save its energy, even the train halted in disgust. Flies hummed within and without in desultory fashion. Bodies shifted and squirmed, looking for comfort from the inflexible seats and for alleviation from the relentless heat. Drops of sweat rolled down my throat when I craned my neck out the window. They melted into the general stickiness covering my body. My tissue thin shirt stuck to the backboard. Into this torpor an energetic voice shouted, “Chai, missy? Chai?” I looked down and there was a child of indeterminate age with beaming smile and shining eyes holding out a tiny clay cup of liquid. “Chai missy? Chai?” In this heat, who wanted tea? I shook my head politely and glanced back at the water-logged fields. 

He was persistent, though, his banged up kettle jangling at his belt as he jumped up to recapture my attention. “Chai, missy? Ēka rupayā haī! Ēka rupayā!” I ignored him and wondered when the train would begin moving again. I counted the hours since I had lain in my cool bedroom in Bishnupur, contemplating the whirr of the ceiling fan. “Chai? Ēka rupayā!” The kid had moved on to the window in front of me. A suited man and an old grandfather took cups from him. They guzzled their fluids, tipping their heads back, then pitched the receptacles against the ground. “Chai, Mēma sāhaba! Ēka rupayā haī!” The voice trailed further down the compartment. I heard the clink of coins, the satisfied slurps, the pinging as every little cup hit the dirt outside.

“Chai, missy? Missy, chai! Bahuta svādiṣṭa! Ēka rupayā haī!” His chant rang out once more under my window. I sighed. His tenacity had overpowered me. I brought out a soggy paper note from my back pocket and handed it to him. He gleefully exchanged it with his earthen demitasse. I figured I would hold it in my hands until the next stop, then throw it out. I stared at the pale umber liquid sloshing in the caramel vessel. I took a sip. The peppery bite of cloves numbed my tongue. I took a second sip. The perfume of cinnamon wafted down my esophagus. Awakened from my stupor, I took a long draught. The sting of nutmeg fused with creamy milk in lilting refrain. I cupped the empty container with fond regret. I jetted it out the window. It landed with a satisfying crash and broke into a handful of fragments against the tracks. The shadow of a breeze soughed against my cheek. No one else noticed it.chai-fortwo


Serves 4                Total Time: 15 minutes [5 minutes preparation; 10 minutes cooking]


2 1/2 cups water

1 cup whole milk

1/4 cup loose black Ceylon tea

4 whole green cardamom pods, crushed

2 thin slices of fresh ginger

1 cinnamon stick, 1-inch in length

1 star anise

1/4 teaspoon black peppercorn, ground

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, grated

8 whole cloves

Honey, as desired for sweetener


For spices:

1. Smash the whole green cardamom pods, thinly slice the fresh ginger root, and grate the 1-inch stick of cinnamon.

2. Mix in a small bowl with the grated nutmeg, ground black peppercorn, star anise, and whole cloves.*

For BT chai:

1. In a small saucepan bring water, tea leaves, and spices to a boil at medium-high heat. Keep at rolling boil for 3-5 minutes or until liquid turns dark from the tea leaves.

2. Once at boiling point, set to simmer and add milk.

3. Aerate the milky mixture by repeatedly ladling it up from the pot and pouring it back down in a long, slow, sweeping gesture.

4. Simmer for 5 minutes or until milk is thoroughly mixed into the spice and tea blend. Make sure the milk does not lose its water content and over-boil.

5. Remove pot from heat and strain chai through a mesh sieve into serving cups or teapot.

6. Add honey as a sweetener to the pot or individual cups. If desired, garnish cups or teapot with a few cardamom pods, star anise, or grated cinnamon for added pungency. Enjoy hot!

* BT Tip: You can make the masala (spice) mix for the chai ahead of time by pulverizing all the spices in a grinder and store this inside an airtight glass jar.

37 replies »

  1. Lately I have been dreaming of Chai, and some nice winter weather to go along with instead of our very humid “Feels Like” 103ºF temps. But after reading this beautiful piece as well as your latest tea article, I promise to no longer wait. So beautiful. Thank you.

  2. I came across this post by accident but was completely hooked from the first sentence. For a moment I was back on a train in India and I could almost hear the all familiar call of Chai, chai right beside me. Thank you for such a great read!

    • Delighted that serendipity led you to us, doubly delighted that the story touched you! Sometimes when I hear a passing train, I see again the face of that boy and his kettle of chai. Thank you for your praise and I hope you enjoy some of the other stories here.

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