Tag Archives: spices

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.

~~~

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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ripe for the picking: spiced plum chutney

2 Oct

plums on branch

Back in Hereford for the weekend, I found myself in an overgrown garden. Since I arrived in England I had experienced comically heavy rain, bursting like a cartoon thundercloud whenever I stepped out the front door. Now the rain had just stopped, the sun sparing us a few rays. The garden was sodden. The plum tree in the middle was weighed down, its boughs bending all the way to the grass. Some had already gone over, mould blooming, carefully tracing an intricate map of decay on the dark pink fruit. The rest were different shades of sunblush, pale yellow and dusty speckled rose. Some were small enough to pop straight into my mouth (for an extra plummy accent?), some heavy enough to fill a palm. A few beads of clear sap dotted the plums, Some had cracked, bursting out of their skins.

I started picking absentmindedly, making a sling out of my square cotton scarf. Somewhere else in the garden came the snip and crack of secaturs, voices. I was within the bowed arms of the tree by now, hidden. With so many plums I vacillated from one branch to another, this one, that one, leave one take one. The toes of my boots were damp, my cuffs soaked with the drops of moisture that rolled off the surface of the plums. I cradled several kilos in my arms, in the scarf.

Later that morning we arranged the flowers and greenery picked in the garden into aesthetically pleasing groups, a harder task than I had imagined. There are formulas for flower arranging: odd numbers of individual blooms, threes and fives, the total height to be one and a half times taller than the vase. Like taking a photo you can use the rule of thirds as a guideline, but then you need skill and practice and an intangible feel for an image. The same way I leave white space when drawing, or add a simple asymmetrical decoration on the side of a plate or a cake. Too much frou-frou ruins the effect, too little leaves the dish unappetising, the bouquet flat. Finally we added a plum branch to the table, harvest festival style, their tawny colours brightening that corner. They were Victorias, my mother told me; it is her name too.

For lunch we had the miracle of a whole half hour of sunshine. (What is it called, my mother asked, the thing in the play with weather and emotions? This I knew: pathetic fallacy.) With our sun, we had bread, butter and cheese and a pot of chutney marked hot apple and shallot, and a number that might have been 2005. It had turned tar-black, but was sweet, subtle. Not too hot, just right. In between bites of cheese and chutney, in that farmyard that belonged to a real ploughman once, we relaxed a little and reached for fresh plums, heavy with juice.

After a long drive back home through the drizzle, I lugged my plums into the kitchen. First there was crumble, then a clear pink jam. There was still a kilo left to stone and cook. Chutney, it had to be chutney. Onions, sauteed in a little oil. fruit simmered with water until soft. Then sugar, vinegar and spices. It felt like alchemy, being a little girl playing at witches. Chutney mellows and develops so over time the flavours deepen and blend, twist into new combinations. You can only really guess at the results. Last time I made plum and apple with fresh ginger and a little cinnamon. This time I added cinnamon, cloves, chili and turmeric.

The mixture gradually went yellow-orange, and turned from a watery, lumpy minestrone into a thick ragu. Watch it as it bubbles, drag a spoon over the bottom every now and then. Try not to breathe in too many vinegary fumes and wait for the moment, not long after, when the mixture is thick enough to leave tracks after the wooden spoon. When it takes a second for it to fall back into place. Turn off the heat, carefully pour into a jug and decant into glass jars, right to the brim.

The jars were turned upside down and left to cool and I went upstairs for a bath, for the weather really had turned chill. Later I added a label in masking tape, ‘Granny’s Victoria Plum Chutney, 2013’ a name that has both my mother and grandmother in it. For the best flavour, I will have to wait a month, or better three. (Make some now for it to be ready in time for Christmas presents.) When it is finally opened, probably for bread and cheese, I will be able to taste the results of my alchemy and of that wet morning in the overgrown garden.

~~~

Spiced Plum Chutney 

makes three or four jars – also nice with half plums, half apples and 3cm fresh ginger, grated

2 onions, diced

900g plums

100ml water (more or less)

200g sugar

200g vinegar

spices, choose any or all:

1/2 tsp cinnamon

1/2 tsp cloves

1/2 tsp turmeric

a pinch of chili powder

Use a large, heavy bottomed pan – this will help it cook quicker and stop it sticking and burning. Sautee the diced onions in a little oil, until translucent but not brown. Stone and quarter the plums. Add plums and water (more if your plums are unripe) and cover. When the plums are soft, add the sugar, vinegar and spices. Bring the mixture to the boil, and let it bubble uncovered for 10-15 minutes until the mixture looks more like a thick tomato sauce than minestrone soup. The chutney should be thick enough that you can see the bottom of the pan when you stir, it will take a second to come back together after the spoon. Decant into a large jug and pour into clean glass jars, right to the brim. Screw the lids on tight and turn upside-down to cool. Label, and do not open for at least a month, better three.

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