It is winter in my home town now. Or at least it is supposed to be. Thank you, global warming!
These days the city wakes up to veils of fog and grass heavy with dew, and to the sounds of crackling and fluttering leaves that are dark brown from neglect. The winter Kolkata transitions from the smells of wet grass in the morning, to afternoons of orange peels, to evenings of freshly dry cleaned shawls, and finally to the nights of musty quilts. Kolkata winters are quieter too. I don’t know if it is the fog that absorbs the sounds, or if the kharkharis are shut too hard, or if the bread vending vans come out a little late, or if our sense of sound is dulled by the sharp Northern winds, or if the din of the city is muffled by the monkey caps…but winter Kolkata is way quieter. The afternoon quiet of the gallis is occasionally cut by the twang of the quilt maker’s medieval looking wooden instrument, and the evenings are noisier with the sounds of feathers rebounding against badminton rackets and the foot steps of boisterous play mates. Other than the picnics, excursions, bon fires, and addas the paras are way quieter in winter than in summer.
All these sounds and smells of the city are tied together into a symphony by the constant buzz of tea stalls and mobile chaiwalas with their kettles clanking, glasses clinking, boisterous conversations of chai patrons, and the smell of soaking tea leaves.
I miss that chai frenzy here. I miss the saffron and garam masala infused tea that’s served in clay cups at dhabas. And I miss the numerous good times that are threaded in the heaps of abandoned clay cups in the cane baskets near the tea shops. We don’t get anything even remotely close to a dhaba tea here. What they serve as chai tea here is an extremely sweet syrupy milky liquid, infused with way too much cinnamon and a little tea bag that has seeped in the liquid for maybe a minute. Oh, btw “chai tea” is a tautology, and a very unimpressive one at that. A real “chai latte” is made by boiling a handful of whole garam masala and tea leaves in a pot of milk until think and creamy, finished with a touch of saffron. That’s the real deal and that’s my recipe today.
Masala Chai recipe
Level: Easy Cooking time: 10 mins Serves: 2
1 tbsp warm milk
a pinch of saffron
1 1/2 cup milk (preferably whole, but 2% works too)
1 cup water
3-4 whole cardamoms
1/4 inch stick of cinnamon (Cinnamon can overpower the saffron smell. Use sparingly or skip altogether)
2 tsp sugar (or to taste)
1 tbsp tea leaves (strong brew)
Add saffron to 1 tbsp of warm milk and set aside.
Add water and milk to a pan (milk will boil over, so use a deep enough pan).
Add the whole spices and bring it to a boil. Lower heat and let simmer for 5 minutes.
Add sugar and tea leaves and bring to another boil. Reduce heat and let the tea leaves soak for 2-3 more minutes.
Remove from heat, add the saffron milk and serve with masala molasses cookies or samosas.