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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. That is such an awesome story & description ~ it sounds like something many of us would do (wary of such a drink) and then W O W. Beautiful writing, the “Chai, missy? Ēka rupayā haī! Ēka rupayā!” put us there with you 🙂

    • Thank you Randall for your kind words. When it comes to food I waver between being adventurous (and letting my intestines pay the price later) and being overtly cautious. Have you tried some of the more unexpected street food items of China?

      • Many…in fact just about everything. Fried scorpions being perhaps my favorite (crispy and seasoned a bit spicy)…and because when they are fried up the tail curls up into a striking position with the barb pointed right ahead 🙂 It was fun. I have found out I am more cautious than I was in my 20s, but still cannot help but trying something interesting 🙂

        • Hmmm, I am not sure I could be that adventurous! I have been told that frying them takes out the poison from the stinger and that with the spice rub you hardly taste the scorpion, but something about it squirming on the skewer puts me off. I admire your intrepidity. 😖

  2. Mmmm, your words transported me to parts of India I have.never visited and I am itching to get to the shops to buy the spices to recreate the tea you speak of with so much love. Great piece!

  3. I love articles about tea. They make me remember that I live in Russia : ) I read a post about tea a few days ago that claims that most people still drink tea in teabags. To me, it’s like making an apple pie with dry apples =)

    • ☕️ Or like making blueberry tart with frozen blueberries. You can blame it on modern society’s need to have things quickly. Morning tea in Russia with those fancy silver samovars and elegant podstanniks? Brilliant. Not very many people seem to appreciate how flavorful teas in Russia are.

      • Yes, podstakanniks 🙂 Podstanniks are what we wear under our pants during harsh Russian frosts. Two similar words but the one prevents you from burning your fingers and the other prevents you from freezing your…that’s another story.

        • 😂 Apologies for the misspelling. Only one of those would be good to serve hot tea in, then. Although I am sure your podstanniks are also very nice (perhaps not as elegant as your podstakanniks). And now I have learnt a new Russian word. Fantastic! Blogging is certainly beginning to improve my polyglotism.

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