Last week, I found an Indian restaurant near my hotel in Alpharetta, GA. As soon as I walked in the restaurant, my heart took me back to Delhi. The smell of Indian spices, a cricket match on the television, the greeting of the Indian servers, and the Punjabi music all put a big dorky grin on my face.
Since I was dining alone, I easily relaxed into the comfort and the atmosphere of the restaurant and ordered a chai with dinner. It could probably go without saying that Indian chai is very different from the chai you find at Starbucks or your local coffee shop. I admit that I was puzzled when they brought the sugar dish and the only option was splenda. The mere thought of adding splenda to my chai felt like I would be cheating on it (I could see it now -- "Sorry, my fakesweet, dear chai. I have ruined you with artificial sweetner, and now I'm cursed with my mouth feeling all weird. I promise I will never have the fakesugar in my chai again.") Fortunately like any good Indian restaurant, they had real sugar so my chai remained unharmed.
My first sip of chai brought back three chai memories while in India.
1. While at work, management was served tea twice a day or during meetings, an office guy brought a saucer and porcelain tea cup with a tea bag of black Indian tea, milk and sugar. The very same office guy then served the rest of the staff tea out of a pitcher in little paper cups. Once while I was in a meeting, the management was served the usual tea, while the rest of the staff were served tea out of the special pitcher. I asked to try the tea from the pitcher instead. From that point forward I was known as the American who drank the same tea as the rest of the staff because boy oh boy was that the best chai I had ever tasted. Pure magic. Always amazing and never disappointing. I have so many fond memories of taking a tea break with my staff in the middle of the morning or afternoon. They would never tell me the secret to the magic chai from the pitcher, but to this day, I still remain puzzled why the management staff drank the boring tea. It was so bleak in comparison to Magic Chai.
2. Like many Westerners living in India, I experienced Delhi Belly more times than I care to remember. The first time I was sick, it took me almost a week to eat anything solid. After the initial two days of not being able to hold down liquids, Margaret, our wonderful maid, made me chai and brewed it with ginger since it's the Indian cure for stomach ailments. After that bout of sickness, she started to make it for me daily to keep me healthy. Though I managed to have a couple more cases of Delhi Belly while living there, it was never as bad, which I can say with confidence was a result of Margaret's Ginger Chai.
3. When my dad visited, I planned a wonderful religious tour of India since he's a preacher man. We saw the Taj Mahal, the Jama Masjid (the largest functioning mosque in India), the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Buddhist temples in Dharamsala (home to the Dalai Lama), and the holy Ganges river, and yet his favorite memory took place during our train ride from Delhi to Varanasi. Yes, his favorite memory of this wildly fascinating and beautiful country was of the chai wallah on the train. Several times throughout our 24-hour roundtrip train journey, the chai wallah walked through the train selling chai while yelling, "Chai?! Chai?! Chai?! Chai?!" Except in the chai wallah's case, chai sounded like, "Chiiiii-yeeeeee?! Chiiii-yeeeeee?!" My dad still loves to walk around wearing a "Chai?!" shirt I gave him while saying "Chiii-yeeee?! Chiiiii-yeeeee?!" pretending he's a chai wallah. <If only he would actually make and sell chai for five rupees!> I feel fortunate that my dad experienced Train Chai Wallah Chai.
As a rule of thumb, I never turned down chai when it was offered to me. I drank it many times a day. It was served in every meeting, store or home I went to and on the train and mid-flight and even while viewing the Taj Mahal by moonlight. While I have the spices and ingredients and make it somewhat frequently at home here in the States and though the chai from the restaurant tasted as close to Indian chai as you can get 10,000 miles away, it's just not the same. While drinking it the other day brought up three wonderful memories, it also made me homesick.