CARMELA’S MASALA CHAI
There are dishes and drinks that forever take you back to a specific moment of your life, that every time meets you as it first was, like days, months and years hadn’t passed. In that moment, time lies still and you relive a crystallised fragment of it as you lived it once upon a time. It’s like a magic bubble, in which you can float for a moment while tasting the flavours and finding, once again, all the spectrum of sensations and memories that they first brought to life.
Carmela’s Masala Chai will always be that for me. Its typically Indian spiced aroma bringing me back to sunny afternoons spent on the veranda overlooking the garden at my friend’s house, the house where Carmela used to work at the time. And funny enough, when sipping Carmela’s chai, it isn’t to India that I am flying back to on the memory magic carpet, but to a beautiful Colonial house on the northern outskirts of Nairobi and its gorgeous and lush English garden. There where coffee plantations still cover the hills and Nairobi is lush and green.
There, tea was served in beautiful China, family heirloom pieces that my friend would carry around the world with her. Expats need those, even more than others. It is so important to feel somehow rooted, and carrying a piece of your life around the globe while you move from Belgium to Russia, from China to Kenya, and on, does exactly the trick. Your belongings are what make every new anonymous house into a home in the shortest time possible, what makes the story uninterrupted, what creates continuity in perpetual change. We all need that and at times we need it more than others.
Carmela would serve this strongly aromatic and spiced tea in a big wooden tray, lacquered in red, if a recall correctly, from China. Her silk scarf would fall off her shoulder while bending to lay the heavy tray in front of us. She would hurry back to the kitchen, her light barefooted steps on the Cotto tiles of the veranda. The scent of the cardamom and the black pepper would hit you first, while she would be slipping out of sight, followed gently by the cinnamon, the vanilla and the ginger. The inhalation would be intense, slow, deep, every scent taking the stage before merging in with the others. Through the smoke raising from the cup, you would admire the most intense coppery coloured brew, just waiting to be tasted. The coppery water and its reflections, would remind you of some secret magic reading of the future, just about to be revealed to you by a whispering voice.
Masala tea in India must be a little like pasta for Italians of rice for Chinese. Or beer for that matter. I am pretty sure every single family has its own recipe and it is impossible to count the variations. All of them are the authentic and pure one and everyone would swear on it. I have personally tasted dozens of different Masala tea recipes in the years, yet Carmela’s is, till date, my favourite, and every time I prepare it I can see her smiling face looking up at me while putting the tray on the table, warmth and kindness speaking from her eyes.
This version of Masala tea isn’t a watered down one. It’s decisive and uncompromising and will never leave you indifferent. While you sip it, Carmela will be beaming at you in her beautifully coloured Sari, the stunning deep green of the English lawn will be shining bright once again and the smell of the flowers will be mixing with the strong and pungent aroma of the precious potion. Nairobi will be in its full splendour: crispy air, bright blue sky, white pretty clouds, the African light as bright and ethereal as ever. You are lighter on the highlands of Kenya and you feel lighter. The oxygen ratio is different at 1800m on the sea level, the light is different, life feels different. The retro and slightly bohemian feel of the veranda will encourage casual conversation and classical music will be filling the air, tuning in the birds songs. Everything will be still, restful and perfect. It works every time for me.
Brew this tea slowly and enjoy all the process: from the grinding of the spices to the slow simmering to release all the flavours and the beautiful colours of the cinnamon and vanilla. Filter it before pouring it in the teapot and serve it in your best China as a tribute to the beautiful crystallization of moments in time. Treat your friends and family with it. It’s a promise of beautiful conversation and special time together.
It’s perfect as an afternoon tea, possibly paired with cardamom or cumin biscuits, macarons, ginger and chilli or ginger and lime flavoured pastries or after a meal, as the perfect digestive. Serve it hot and pour it in your best China to create a lifetime memory of the greatness of the ordinary.
Carmela left and went back to India a long time ago. I have lost contact and I won’t probably ever meet her again, but we say hello to each other often during our afternoon teas on the veranda, her tea and her memory always warming up my heart as they did, back in our Kenyan days.
RECIPE FOR 4 PEOPLE (APPROX. 8 CUPS)
5 green cardamom seeds
8 black peppercorns
1 full stick of cinnamon
1 to 2 inches of fresh ginger slices
1 vanilla bud cut along the length
1 tsp of black tea preferably English Breakfast or Earl Grey
Crush roughly the cardamom and peppercorns in a mortar. Slice the ginger and break by hand the cinnamon stick in big chunks. Cut the vanilla bud lengthwise and scrape the vanilla powder with a knife. Make sure to put all the powder and the bud in the water.
Put all ingredients in cold water and bring to boil, lower the fire and let it simmer for approximately 5 minutes or as long as needed to get the water to a nice copper colour.
Add one tsp of black tea and turn off the fire. Let the tea brew for a couple of minutes.
Filter through a fine mesh and serve it immediately. No milk or sugar is needed. Italians beware: lemon would be pure blasphemy.