Leena Cooks: Motiben’s Chai

By on Mar 31, 2009 in Drinks, Leena Cooks | 4 comments

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My family chai recipe with meyer lemon cookies.

In this week’s lecture for my high school food studies class, I will be explaining to them how food can symbolize more than just something we eat. Food can be a family tradition. Food can have positive and negative associations. Food can symbolize things like fear and freedom. You see, I am half-Indian. My father is from the state of Gujarat, my mother is a Caucasian woman who grew up in Ohio. Growing up as a biracial child in the Midwestern U.S. in the 1980s and 90s, I was constantly reminded by my classmates and society that I was not like other people. I was tan where as the other kids in school were mainly white. My father cooked weird things that had a funny smell. I went to a Hindu balvihar when my friends went to mass. And when Apu was introduced on the Simpsons in the 90s, it gave people an easy way to taunt me more. That was when I started learning how food could get a negative connotation. I never looked at a slurpee the same way again. Even within our extended family, I was different. One side was white, the other side was packed with full-blooded Indians that were fluent in Gujarati. I never felt like I fit in on either side of my family. On the white side, I would stick out like a sore thumb. On the brown side, I could barely understand what people said, let alone their very different lives with two Indian parents. All I knew that was Indian was my religion and my food. For the longest time, I had a negative reaction to all Indian food. This included my family chai, which I would smell simmering away on the stove every morning as Motiben, my grandmother, and my father sat on the kitchen floor, praying. I hated the fragrant cardamom, the spicy black pepper, the potent ginger scent. It made me feel ashamed to be so embarrassed by my family culture and food, but I was a kid. I just wanted to fit in. When I went to college, I started to appreciate these things that made me and my family different from other people. I started missing that familiar scent of chai bubbling on the stove in the morning, the sound of Dad and Motiben chanting. I missed the fact that even though I couldn’t converse with my relatives at Motiben’s funeral, I was able to sit down and pray for her with my uncles in Hindi. And I could still sit down to a pot of Motiben’s chai in the early morning hours, savoring the flavors that once repulsed me and steeping myself in my Indian culture and memories of Motiben. You know this is not a recipe blog, but every now and then I throw you a bone. Here is my family chai recipe, along with a few photos to help you through the process.

The ingredients.

Chai Masala (Chai Mix) 1/4 cup of ginger powder 6 mashed green cardamom pods 1/4 tsp of black pepper (more if you like it spicy) Mix together. Store in a covered container.

Green cardamom pods.

To make the tea, you will need a black tea from an Indian grocery store. Other black tea may work, but I like to use the Red Box tea from my local Indian grocery store with the happy Indian family on the front. It looks like instant coffee grounds. 1 serving of chai 1 tsp black tea 1/4 tsp chai masala 1/2 cup of milk 1/2 cup of water 1 tsp of sugar Simmer all ingredients together on low until the liquid is a dark tan. Be careful not to let this boil over on itself. Low and slow simmering is the key to a delicious cup of chai. Strain into a tea cup and enjoy!

Pre-simmering pot of chai.

Simmer the chai until it is a nice and dark tan.

I like to use my skin as a test. The chai should be as brown as me!


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  1. Nick

    10 Feb ’09

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    Ohhh…this makes me miss Motiben. My memories of her make me smile. Thanks Leena.

  2. Nick

    10 Feb ’09

    Post a Reply

    Ohhh…this makes me miss Motiben. My memories of her make me smile. Thanks Leena.

  3. starrrie

    4 Jan ’11

    Post a Reply

    I find your association with the color of the chai you love and the color of your skin breath-takingly beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing!

    • Leena

      5 Jan ’11

      Wow–thanks Starrie.

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