This drink is something I have grown up with: there was always a steaming mug of chaa (or ‘chai’, if you want to go with the Hindi pronunciation, more widely-known and popularised now through the spice-infused syrup used in various hot drinks by large and artisanal coffee houses) on the table with breakfast before school, or as an afternoon pick-me-up at around four o’clock and, also as a way of winding down at the end of the day with a less intensely spiced version before bed. I still like to enjoy it as a morning drink on days off, or with a delicious slice of cake or some chocolate on a weekend afternoon (nothing quite beats chaa on a chilled-out Saturday afternoon) and it remains a wholly familiar and consistent part of my life.
Chaa was always and is still used as a go-to remedy for minor illness and life’s ills in general; it is a great way of warming up and recentring yourself when you have a cold, the delicate aroma enlivening your senses and the infusion of the fennel, cardamom and carom seeds (technically the fruit pods of the plant) replenishing your body with hydration, an incredible tonic for restoring digestive equilibrium, and just an omnipotent saviour for overall poopiness and fatigue, both mental and physical. Whatever the necessity, chaa stands as a universal antidote for all who luxuriate in it and I would like to invite you to create your own experience and make yourself a cup of traditional Punjabi chaa.
To brew this liquid wonder, you will need:
* Fennel seeds (green saunf);
* Whole green cardamom pods (hari elaichi);
* Carom seeds (ajwain);
* Cloves (long, optional);
* Ginger powder;
* Black tea (in a bag or loose leaf);
* Milk (whole or semi-skimmed);
* Sugar (demerara or white granulated, optional);
* A tea strainer (the finer the better).
You can find the whole spices and ingredients at any large supermarket or specialist South Asian store (the larger Tescos have a very abundant selection of World foods, you’ll definitely find what you’re looking for in there).
The method is as follows:
* Measure out some cold water using a cup or mug, preferably the one you intend to use for the tea as you’ll get a better proportion, or you can eyeball it if your guesswork is pretty accurate. I usually add a little more water than the measurement to factor in any boiling out, so you have a whole mug of tea instead of being a little shy at the end. Pour the water into a pan (I find a stainless steel one works pretty well and this is what has been used since I was a kid);
* Measure in a small handful of fennel seeds (I like to crush them between my palms to stimulate the flavour), about four or five cardamom pods, depending on your preference (crushed or split to release the seeds) and a pinch of carom seeds, pressed between your fingers as you sprinkle them in to release the flavour. You can, at this point, add a clove and a pinch of ginger powder, but these are entirely optional depending on how warming you want it and how many flavour layers you want the tea to have (I usually add a clove on a cold day to enhance the warmth, otherwise the three-spice base is completely fine). Place the pan onto a medium-high heat and wait for the water to boil;
* When the water is on the verge of boiling (you will be able to see a cluster of small bubbles around the pan), turn the hob to a medium heat and simmer the water for about five minutes. The water should begin to take on a pale green colour, shaded with an indistinct brown depending on whether you have added any darker spices to the mix. Let the water swirl and infuse; the longer you simmer, the more flavour the tea will take on from the spices;
* When you are happy with the colour and content that the water has infused well, add in one teabag or a teaspoonful of loose tea to the pan and simmer for two minutes on a medium-low heat, or more depending on how strong you want the tea to be (one teabag for two standard cups/mugs of tea works for me, however, you can tailor this to suit your needs and add more or simmer for less time depending on your preferences);
* When you are satisfied with the strength of the tea, add milk to your liking and simmer on a low heat for two-five minutes; the tea will take on a more luxurious, creamy quality the longer you simmer the milk, but make sure not to do it for too long as you will burn it and lose the flavour of the tea to a bitter undertone- unpleasant and a disappointment for the time you’ve put in to making this brew. At this stage, you can add your sugar straight to the pan, if you choose, introducing the ‘Punjabi’ element to a cup of Indian tea (or so I’ve been told as I’ve grown up, it may well be the nuance of adding sugar to the tea at this stage that makes it Punjabi, but I’m not entirely factually sure). If not, you can just stir in a teaspoon of sugar when you’ve poured it out as you would with a regular hot drink, or not put any in at all, which is how I drink it most of the time;
* When the milk has simmered, your tea is ready to be strained!! Take the pan off the heat and stand for about a minute, then pour into your favourite cup or mug using a fine tea strainer over the rim (which is even more paramount if you’ve used loose tea, the whole spices will tend to catch in the mesh of an average-sized one). Grab some cake or biscuits, take to the table and enjoy!! (I find ginger biscuits pair with this tea very well, but anything you like is fine!).
You can also make this tea vegan by using soya, almond or any substitute milk: I’ve never tried, but I’m sure they would work just fine (you’ll probably get a better result from a smoother, less grainy milk). Also try it with different sweeteners, such as honey or a more molasses-based sugar, experiment and see what works best for you!!
I hope you enjoyed this little anecdotal recipe, I would love to know what you think and hear about your experiences and impressions of Indian tea (photos in comments would also be welcome) :)