The Grape Leaf Club made an Indian dinner this week. Largely based around Kerala (and therefore coconut) we had fish curry with tamarind, thoran, freshly steamed idlis and daal. Dessert was French-Indian inspired, a rice pudding with cardamom, pomegranate and kumquat like jewels on top. My kitchen is still under renovation, so the spice jars are all in bags in the sitting room, to be fetched one by one. As small as it is, at one point there were five people in the little space, chopping, washing up, shrieking as the pomegranate hit the floor with a horror-movie splash of red.
Later on, looking over my notes to find the thoran recipe, I glanced over Mrs Leelu’s masala chai (literally ‘spiced tea’) and the words ‘add pepper if you have a cold’ jumped out at me. The season of scratchy throats and runny noses has crept up on me, and my eyes are heavy, at half-mast.The idea of a hot, sweet, fiercely spicy tea could not have been more appealing. (Actually, in the book I am reading, Spice: The History of a Temptation, the Romans used pepper to cure all kinds of unsightly ailments as well as seasoning their stuffed, grilled dormice.) I went straight home to make a pot of chai.
Paris five years ago had not heard of chai, outside of the Indian area around La Chapelle, Gare du Nord. Now more and more cafes offer a chai latte, sometimes just a disappointing cup of hot milk with a tea ball floating in it, slowly turning the milk beige. The best one I have found so far (after an extensive survey) is at Bob’s Bakeshop, also near La Chapelle. (“What’s that you wrote down? Bob’s Bobo Shop?” a friend asked, squinting at my handwriting. She was not far off: it is a modern American-style bakery that does excellent bagels, proper Belleville Brulerie coffee and attracts all the bobos, or rich hippies, in the quartier. Their chai latte was properly aromatic with a thick mousse of foam on top, sweet but not too sweet. And they will do a ‘dirty chai’ Australian-style if you ask, with a shot of espresso.)
In any case, the chai I tasted in India was totally different, not a large latte but a small glass of liquid energy, to be refilled time and again. At the Jaipur literary festival, it was served in little terracotta pots brushed with gold and green swirls. (I collected them to take home, since they would have been thrown away otherwise. Had to buy six cups of tea to make a set, at the exorbitant price of 20 rupees each.) At the railway stations it came in plastic cups almost like espresso. We didn’t have to get off the train as the vendors would come rushing down the corridor with their kettles before the train pulled away again. In Kerala it smelled overwhelmingly of cardamom. Chai chai chai chai. When I came home after a month, British tea tasted bitterly disappointing and I had to stop myself from adding six teaspoons of sugar. However I did bring two bags of cardamom, 300g each, that I have slowly been using up.
Adjust the spices to your taste – I used the maximum amount of ginger and cardamom and some nutmeg as well (not in the recipe, not native to India either, as I learned in Spice, but to the Molucca islands in the Philippines). Sugar or honey can be added later on too, if people have different preferences. I plan on drinking the whole litre myself over this afternoon, if the kitten draped over my arm will allow me to get up to go back to the kitchen. Serve in small glasses or cups.
Mrs Leelu’s Masala Chai
375ml (1 1/2 cups) milk (or soy milk if you prefer)
750ml (3 cups) water
1 small cinnamon stick
2-4 cardamom pods, crushed
5-15g ginger, grated (approx size of piece of ginger: top joint of thumb)
1/4 nutmeg, grated
several generous grinds black pepper
10g (4 tsp) black tea leaves
40g (3-4 tbs) sugar
In a large saucepan, bring to a boil water, milk and spices. Add tea leaves and sugar and continue to boil gently for 5-10 minutes until it becomes a nice caramel colour. Taste to check. Strain and serve piping hot in small glasses or cups.