Tag Archives: india

masala chai

2 Feb

chai 2

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.

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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.

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nigel slater’s spiced bread pudding with fried bananas

20 Mar

spiced bread pudding

After a sleepy Saturday wandering from the Buttes-Chaumont  to the Marais, all I wanted was to curl up in my favourite wine-cardigan with something restorative. Luckily Nigel Slater understands me. When I opened his Kitchen Diaries, not only did the Spiced Bread Pudding jump out at me, but the accompanied story almost exactly mirrored one of my own. His recipe is inspired by a visit to Kerala, where he was stuck in “a teetotal oasis” for which he was unprepared: “twenty years ago the lack of alcohol came as a jaw-dropping disappointment after our long, dusty and dangerous drive from hell.” But the pudding made up for it.

We were also in Kerala when we took a six hour bus journey up into the mountains to the tea plantations of Munnar. I had packed a book, but for the first half of the journey I just wanted to watch out of the window, chin pillowed in the crook of my arm. The windows didn’t have any glass, just metal shutters. The dusty air swept in, a salve from the heat. We crossed lagoons that stretched to the horizon, passed banana plantations and busy villages. School-children, whole busfuls, waved at us and shouted HELLO HOW ARE YOU? Each town had at least one temple, mosque and church or shrine with a glass alcove housing a life-size St George and the dragon. Sometimes a few in a row. Trucks thundered by with their colourful head-dresses, painted slogans and flowers. On the back, “Horn Please OK.”  The two-lane road had an invisible third passage in the middle, constantly available for overtaking. The driver would beep and go and somehow the rest of the traffic would flow around us. Once the bus stopped and the passengers all filed out – us worried about our luggage – because apparently the bridge was too fragile. First the bus went across, empty, then we did.

Around halfway we stopped for a chai-break. Around four or five hours in, it got dark all of a sudden as the sun disappeared. Bella distracted me as you might a bored toddler, with iphone games of Clumsy Ninja and Trivial Pursuit. After six hours and a half hours, we scrambled off with our backpacks some way out of the town centre – where there was no-one to direct us to our hotel in the old British club, the only place with a last-minute vacancy. The Lonely Planet had promised us a quaint place perfect for gin and tonics. Sadly, due to licensing issues the three bars in the club could only serve lemonade. We came in just in time for dinner, just in time to read the Club Rules that forbade sandals and panic.

“You haven’t taken any chicken, please take! Come!” The manager barked. Two of us scurried back to the buffet obediently. He was an affable but abrupt character who might have been Basil Fawlty’s brother in another life. Hands in pockets, he gave us a tour of the club: lounge with leather armchairs and obligatory animal heads, library with table-tennis table. “You play? Yes? You will play now, for forty-five minutes.” It wasn’t a question. We could only acquiesce and laugh. It was an uncomfortably British time-warp. Even without our gin-and-tonics, we slept so well that night, totally exhausted.

The next day we visited the factories of the DARE initiative that teaches the differently-abled children of tea-planters: it included a textile workshop for dyes and prints, one for hand-made paper products, a jam factory, a bakery and a kitchen garden. The quality was absolutely incredible, especially the Aranya silks – all-natural, local dyes made of tea-waste, banana leaves, pomegranate skins, Indian madder. The workshops were surrounded by the hills planted with tea bushes, whose crazy mosaic pattern and bright green colour made it feel like we had wandered onto a Tim Burton set. Kerala is full of plantations, tea, coffee, cardamom, coconut palms. Pepper, vanilla. Bananas. Most of the delicious things in life in fact.

A long story to say: this pudding will remind you of exotic climes AND a really comfortable armchair. It works scaled down as solo supper or scaled up for an easy brunch. (Much simpler than pancakes or French toast if you have to feed a crowd – one dish you can prepare ahead.) I like using brioche for extra luxe, but bread and butter will work too. It isn’t too sweet nor too stodgy, more like a creme caramel than a slab of sponge pudding. It offers the intoxicating scent of cardamom and coconut, barely any resistance to the fork as the brioche soaks up the custard, just a few crisp, sugared points poking out. And the fried bananas, sticky and slightly caramelised around the edges, are delightful. It will cure a hangover, the ennui of a recently-returned traveller or the aches and pains of a long commute. Enjoy.

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Nigel Slater’s Spiced Bread Pudding with fried bananas

Slightly adapted from Kitchen Diaries Vol II. If using brioche slices, omit the butter. Great for using up egg yolks if the whites are needed for meringues or macarons.

serves 4 for brunch or 6 for dessert

300g sliced bread or brioche (about 10 slices for me)

a little butter for spreading (not necessary for brioche)

6 green cardamom pods

1 vanilla bean (or 1 tsp vanilla extract)

1/8 tsp cinnamon

400ml coconut milk

400ml milk

2 whole eggs + 2 egg yolks

OR 7 egg yolks, about 140g

80g light brown sugar

pinch salt

a sprinkle of sugar for the topping

for the bananas:

50g butter

4 bananas

2tbs sugar

zest of one orange

Preheat oven to 180C. Butter a baking dish (approx 22cm diameter, but more or less is fine). Lightly toast the bread or brioche until golden-brown. If using bread, spread with butter. Cut slices diagonally and arrange the triangles in the dish, points up, overlapping slightly.

Remove cardamom seeds from the pods and crush in a pestle and mortar or with the end of a rolling pin. Slice the vanilla bean in half and scrape out the seeds. Mix cardamom, vanilla seeds, cinnamon, both milks, eggs and sugar in a large bowl to combine.

(If you are preparing ahead – stop now. Clingfilm the bread, put the custard mixture in the fridge. Then all you have to do in the morning, or at the end of the main course is heat the oven, pour over the custard and bake.)

Pour custard over bread/brioche. Sprinkle a little more sugar over the points that stick out. Bake for 25 minutes or until the bread is nicely browned and the custard is set. Let it cool for 15 minutes or so before serving. (Equally nice reheated later or the next day.)

For the bananas: cut in half length-ways. Heat the butter in a large frying pan and cook the bananas on both sides until golden and soft. Sprinkle over the sugar and cook for a few more minutes until they start to caramelise around the edges. Stir in orange zest and serve immediately with the bread pudding.

(For a slightly lighter dessert, serve simply with oranges peeled and sliced into rounds.)

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