Sunday, October 26, 2014
I returned home from India just two weeks ago, but it already feels like it's been months. I can hardly believe that just a few weeks back I was in Delhi, sweating in its sweltering heat, sleeping under an electric fan, and living out of a backpack.
But here I am, back in Toronto, with its wide sidewalks, crisp autumn air, and plentiful public washrooms. It's nice to be back in my old, familiar neighbourhood with all of its adorable cafes and reliably good coffee, but I find myself dearly missing the chaiwallahs of India.
Wallah, in Hindi, is a sort of catch-all phrase that indicates a person's involvement with some specific activity, usually referring to a person's profession, and chaiwallahs are the makers of chai. I have much love for chaiwallahs, because they make chai. Amazing chai.
When I was in India I drank chai just about every day, often multiple times. My friends and I spent one distressed day in Bangalore searching for chaiwallahs fruitlessly, only to discover a restaurant slightly tucked away that made delicious, street-priced joy. We rejoiced.
If you travel to India, you will probably become obsessed with chai. I did. I drank it, Instagrammed it, and yes, also learned how to make it.
Chai just means "tea," but in India, when a person says "chai," they're talking about Indian masala tea, a creamy, milky, sweet, spiced tea that is served piping hot in tiny glasses. And holy fuck is it good.
There was one chaiwallah in Mumbai close to my hostel that I visited just about every day. His "shop" consisted of himself, a hot plate, a bucket of water, a bucket of milk, his tray for chai glasses, and his cooking equipment. It was on a flight of steps just off the sidewalk of a main road where he was shaded by the buildings and trees. We'd stop by and order a cup each, then sit on the hoods of parked cars while he prepared the chai fresh for us. Because chai is usually served in small, handleless glasses (usually 70ml, sometimes 120ml), chaiwallahs often fill them 3/4 full, leaving a space at the top for you to hold so that you won't burn your fingers. But this chaiwallah filled our glasses right to the top, then placed it inside a second glass so that we could hold them without burning ourselves and enjoy a full cup of creamy, fresh chai.
If you've never seen a chaiwallah at work, it can be entertaining in and of itself. They bring everything to a boil in the pot, then with a ladle-like spoon froth the mixture by stirring it vigorously and scooping some of it up, lifting it high, and then pouring it back into the pot, over and over until the chai is frothy and golden brown in colour. Then they strain it and serve it to you, piping hot. It's a jolt of creamy, sugary goodness, meant to spike your blood sugar and give you a burst of energy. It's a little ritual that makes it into just about everyone's day, and it certainly made its way into mine while I was travelling.
There is chai everywhere in India, but it tastes a little different everywhere you go. Most chai masalas (spice mixes) consist of cardamom, black pepper, ginger, cinnamon (also called cassia), nutmeg, and cloves. But some places don't use cinnamon but do use star anise, others use white pepper, and some add fresh ginger. (Always add fresh ginger, if you ask me.)
And then there's lemongrass ginger chai, which, holy shit, let me tell you about it.
First, it has the bonus of not requiring a masala and so saves you the trouble of trying to figure out what the fuck to put in your tea to make it taste so damn good, and second, it is damned delicious.
Now that I'm back home, I'm not having chai every day. It's just not the same, but every other night I do whip up a few cups at the stove and cuddle up with one on the couch. It's a recipe that doesn't take much time or effort, but I find a little bit of chai brings me a whole lot of comfort.