For most of my childhood, my Indian grandmother was an enigma to me. Everyone called her Motiben, or “big sister” in Gujarati, her language that I didn’t speak. This tiny frail woman in a white sari didn’t walk so much as shuffle, like an Indian version of ET. She didn’t eat meat, and she liked to have the same schedule every day, rituals that she performed without fail.
My earliest memory of Motiben is her chai ritual. After her morning prayers, she’d heat water with a little scoop of orange pekoe CTC tea, a processed Indian tea that came in a red box with a happy Indian family on front. After it simmered in a small pot, she’d add her chai masala. Every family in India has their own variations of chai masala, but ours consists of dried ground ginger, green cardamom and black pepper. It is sweet, fragrant, and a little spicy. She’d then add milk, and let it heat through until it was the same shade as her light brown skin, and burn-your-tongue-off scalding. Finally, she’d put in just a bit of sugar, and then strain the concoction into a stainless steel cup. Then, she’d carefully pour a little of the piping hot chai into a stainless steel saucer to cool before taking a sip. Pour, cool, sip, repeat, over and over again until the chai was finished. It was a long and drawn out affair that drove my fast paced brain crazy.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I fully understood why this ritual was so comforting to her. Motiben had moved thousands of miles from home so that her sons living in the United States could help take care of her. She was surrounded by people speaking a language she didn’t understand, and she was lonely. Her chai recipe tapped into the familiarity of home. I can picture her breathing a sigh of relief with every sip.
In fact, her chai recipe had a long history of helping my family weather difficult situations. When a surprise heart attack took my grandfather’s life at the young age of 40, Motiben was left alone to raise her five boys and run the family cotton farm in Shuklatirth, Gujarat. Amidst the chaos of being a widow and a newly single mother, one thing never changed: her morning chai. As a boy, my dad would wake up to the smell of the family chai bubbling away, served for breakfast with some methi thepla, a fenugreek flatbread. He still remembers how that first sip was always reassuring. Motiben no longer had a husband, and her boys no longer had a father. But at least they had their chai. At least that was the same.
My dad moved from India to San Francisco in 1969 for college, the first person in his family to leave the country. And it wasn’t easy. He had no friends or family, spoke limited English, and juggled going to school with a full time job. His roommate, another Indian immigrant, would make chai every morning, but it never tasted quite right to my dad. Six years later, when he could afford a plane ticket back home, Motiben taught him how to make her chai. He returned to the U.S., recipe in hand. He couldn’t live near his family, but at least he had his chai. At least that was the same.
After I graduated from college, I moved back in with my parents so I could attend a local culinary school. It was a lonely time for me, with my future husband and friends still at college, and my Motiben, now in her eighties, spending her last few years in India. I dedicated myself to recreating her chai. I hunted through Indian grocery stores on Devon Avenue in Chicago for the ingredients, the heady scent of garam masala, cardamom and cumin punching me in the face as I shopped, potent yet familiar. Finally, I found the red box of tea with a happy Indian family on the front. I didn’t have my boyfriend or friends, and I didn’t have my Motiben, but I could have her chai. At least that was the same.
Years later, my family and I were in a hospital waiting room. My mom was undergoing surgery to remove her throat cancer, and we prepared to have one of the longest waits of our lives. Alkesh Kaka and Umakant Kaka, two of my dad’s brothers, joined us and the very first thing they did was break out a thermos of hot chai to share. We didn’t know if she would survive the surgery, or the months of radiation and chemo that would follow. I didn’t know if my daughters would ever hear their grandma speak again. But as I let that first sip of spicy chai warm me from the inside out, I breathed a sigh of relief. At least we had chai. At least that was the same.
The word chai literally translates to tea. When most places in the U.S. serve chai, they are referring to masala chai, a tea typically drunk in Northern India, made with masala (spice mix), milk and sugar. Here are a few things to know about masala chai:
There is no one traditional recipe for masala chai.
- It often varies from family to family and even person to person.
Masala chai can vary depending on the type of tea, the masala mixture, and the type of milk used.
- Tea for masala chai is typically a strong black tea leaf. It can be made from whole or broken leaf tea from India, such as Darjeeling or Assam, or made using CTC tea (crush tear curl tea, also called mamri tea), which are more affordable processed tea granules that taste better the longer they’re steeped.
- The chai masalas also vary greatly. Most will contain ginger (dried and ground, or fresh) and cardamom, but sweet spices like fennel, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, mint and star anise can be used, as well as savory spices like cumin, black peppercorn and garam masala. Chai wallahs, or masala chai street vendors in India, build their reputations based on their unique chai masala.
- Milk can be buffalo’s milk or cow’s milk, or sometimes sweetened condensed milk. Non-dairy milks can also be used. You will not find chai lattes in India. These masala chai knock-offs are an American invention, typically made using a masala chai concentrate and steamed milk.
Chai is served differently depending on where you consume it.
- In private homes, chai is served in a communal tea pot if everyone is having the same masala blend. It is not uncommon for guests to request masala chai with different spices, in which case, the host would serve them in cups. Teapots and cups can be stainless steel (more of an Indian tradition) or china (a more western tradition). Stainless steel cups tend to be handleless cups with large rims. If you buy chai from a chai wallah in India, it is served in a simple glass cup.
Chai is considered a very social drink, as well as something to drink throughout the day.
- When guests visit a home, they are offered chai by hosts, and friends gather at tea shops around India to drink tea and socialize.
Photo by Julie Weisberg