Chow Town

Chai has many roles from daily ritual to cultural celebrations

Updated: 2013-11-16T18:04:24Z


Every afternoon at 3 p.m., Apoorva Lakhani’s father made chai in his hometown of Vadodara, India.

Gently boiled, strained and served hot, chai is a simple mixture of sugar; tea leaves converted to granules the size of kosher salt crystals and equal parts water and milk. Apoorva, my friend, knew it was a special day when his dad added ground cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and dried ginger to make masala chai.

Jeanie Barnes, former King City, Mo. resident, remembers chai wallahs, or chai salesmen, running down train station platforms balancing trays of hot chai yelling “chai, garam chai … tea, hot tea” as trains pulled into the station. The chai wallahs handed disposable clay cups of steaming chai through train windows while passengers hurriedly paid before the train pulled out of the station.

While chai was a part of Apoorva and Jeanie’s daily rituals, it also played a significant role in cultural celebrations, festivities and holiday revelry. Jeanie recalls many afternoon teas on the lawn drinking chai with friends and fellow church members in celebration of birthdays and anniversaries.

Finding the best chai recipe is like asking a Southerner the “right” way to make sweet tea, or a barista for the best coffee “recipe.” How one takes their chai always depends on personal preference and often varies region by region.

And as important as the chai recipe itself, according to Apoorva, are the snacks served alongside it. He prefers methi dhebra, a mini flatbread made with fenugreek (methi). Jeanie dunks rusks, or sweet toast similar to biscotti, in her chai.

These days, Apoorva, or Al as his friends and colleagues now call him, gets his chai fix from Starbuck’s — which he says is the closest version to what his dad served during his childhood in India. Jeanie, who grew up in India with missionary parents, still drinks chai every day.

While an individual chai drinker has a personal preference, and each region of India a different method, one thing is certain — chai conjures memories of comfort and place. So whether you add black peppercorns or use soy milk, you drink it in celebration or while cozy in a reading chair, chai transports you to a place perhaps you’ve never been … yet.

I’ll explore chai in more posts over the next several weeks — what it is, where to find it in Kansas City and how to make it at home.

Raised by generations of cooks, farmers and green thumbs, Andrea Shores is an enthusiastic eater and curious cook. She loves sharing her passion for local food by telling farmers’ and food purveyors’ stories.

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