This post marks Day 8 of Miss Ginsu's 2007 Advent Calendar. To click into other days and other projects, use the calendar page to navigate.
In a special file in my brain, I keep a cache of borrowed memories. Things I've read, scenes from films, stories collected from the mouths of others. I take them out every now and then. I turn them slowly to watch how they catch the light. Everyone must have something similar.
I once worked with a cook who told me beautiful yarns about his travels. He was one of those with a gift for stories. In the short time I knew him, he filled my mind with brief, colorful scenes from around the world. A lovely gift, no? It's the kind of gift that never wears out. You get to keep it for just as long as you keep your mind.
One of my favorite visions was a description of pressing into a crowded train traveling across India. The cars were loaded with people and baggage, but small, lithe boys would scamper through, swinging on the handrails, banging cups and shouting, "Chai! Chai!" For a pittance, they'd serve it up, hot and milky, before swinging down to the next car.
My chef grew up in Bombay and Goa. He gave me stories about his grandmother's mango tree and his first kitchen job peeling heaping mountains of onions. He also told me that Indians drink their masala chai hot when the weather's hot. "The spice makes you sweat. The sweat makes you cool."
That's quite a contrast to way we drink it in America: hot in the winter, iced in the summer. But Western though the custom may be, brewing up a hot cup of spice, sweetness and steam seems perfectly welcome to me on a blustery winter morning.
Here's my Masala Chai method. It's maybe a little less traditional than the way chef's grandma does hers, but it's fast, easy, delicious, and just the thing to get me going on a cold winter's morning.
Now, a masala is simply a mixture of spices, and chai literally means tea. Not spiced tea, but just plain old tea. Here in the states, people just say chai when they're looking for spiced chai. I generally try to talk about masala chai when I mean tea mixed with spices.
Ready Masala Chai Mix
It's best to freshly grind whole spices, as the preground ones lose their power pretty quickly. For this recipe, I like a blend of brown and green cardamom pods. The brown ones bring in a nice smokiness. If you can only find green ones (more commonly used in baking) don't fret. It'll still be a nice blend.
6 cardamom pods
2 sticks cinnamon
4 black peppercorns
1 star anise
6 whole cloves
1 tsp ground ginger
1 14oz can sweetened condensed milk
Tea, for brewing (Assam, Ceylon or Darjeeling work well)
1. Crush the cardamom, reserving the seeds.
2. Add cardamom seeds, cinnamon, peppercorns, star anise and cloves to a clean coffee grinder (alternately, you can use a morter & pestle) and grind to a fine powder.
3. Blend sweetened condensed milk and spices.
4. Brew a pot of tea (or just a cup, as you like).
5. Add a rounded spoonful of the Ready Masala Chai Mix to a hot cup of tea. Stir well. Sip with pleasure.
Store excess mix in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Makes many delicious cups of chai and keeps for quite a long time.
In addition to being an easy hot beverage for holiday gatherings, a kit of pre-ground chai spices wrapped up in a pretty pack alongside a can of sweetened condensed milk, a box of loose tea and a set of instructions might make a welcome gift for a chai-loving friend or coworker.