Sona is mad about chai. It could be 100 degree weather outside, she will choose kadak, masala chai over a cool lemonade. Aromatic fennel seeds, cardamom, ginger, the pungency of loose-leaf Yellow Label or Wagh Bakri tea wafting through the air in the morning trumps everything. To combat dehydration in the middle of a desert, she would probably opt for chai in a thermos. When we travel anywhere, even to visit my parents in California, she always packs her chai ka samaan in ziplock bags. I’m not an addict, she used to over explain during the early stages of our relationship, the duping period. Really I’m not. Foolishly, I believed her, and look where we are.
Everyone in my family in India and here loves drinking cha, but they also love to add milk. Lots of it. So much that it seems like they’re drinking warm milk, rather than masala chai. The cha served at roadside dhabas are considered very working class style made incredibly strong, with very tiny amounts of milk. Just like Sona makes every morning. The kind of cha Indian monkeys drink in Nainital and Kattra that gives them the energy and malice to steal cameras, purses, wallets, and holy offerings (Sona is still pissed about our stolen parshad from Vaishno Devi, a holy pilgrimage in Kashmir). This would explain why people think Indians eat monkey brains. If you don’t know about this rich part of Indian culinary culture, go watch some Indiana Jones. KALI MAAAAA! ! ! ! !
The only thing we’ve tried that compares to the cultural connection of cha, its deliciousness, and of course the requisite hit of caffeine, is Keralan coffee in God’s Own Country, served by some dude wearing a dhoti, who smiles a lot, and would make one hell of a charades player, as he understood our sign language for coffee and breakfast dosa that turned out to be bigger than our heads. Turns out you cannot just learn the basics of Malyalam from a Lonely Planet phrasebook on the overnight train.
Whatever you do, do not say chai-tea in Sona’s presence, or she will turn into one of those dark, brooding, manga characters in full tornado-like anger. Tonsils. Rage filled eyes. Arms, legs, fluttering like a maniac. Mango achar pickle, on the other hand, will receive no reaction. I like cha just fine, but I also succumbed to its lure during our six month honeymoon in India, drinking endless cups of it at roadside dhabas, handing silver 1 rupee coins to some kid through the bars on our railway windows, in exchange for the holy grail of chai: kullar vali cha, which used to be ubiquitous everywhere when I used to go to India as a kid. Strong chai poured into a terra-cotta cup, which adds a lovely earthy aroma. It’s environmentally friendly, and the thrill of smashing it into the ground when you’re done cannot be beat. When we went as a couple in 2007, it was very rare to find kullar cups, which have sadly been all but replaced by crappy, plastic cups for on the go.
Ready to make some masala chai at home? Sona’s got you covered: http://www.ishqinabackpack.com/eat-page-sonas-special-adraki-chai-recipe/
What’s the one food or drink that best encapsulates a place for you?