Forget Trump, Here Is How To Make A Banging Cup of Chai 31 January 2017

I started writing an article on the triple threat facing Muslims. That of fascist governments, in the form of Trump in the US, the National Front in France, Ukip in Britain, and a handful more across Europe. That of far right violence, which traditionally sees itself as supporting the fascist state. The murder of six Muslims at a mosque in Quebec is simply the latest in a string of similar attacks across the West. And finally, of structural discrimination. Muslims, for example, “face the worst job discrimination of any minority group“. These three dangers combine perilously for many.

But I couldn’t muster myself the motivation to finish it. It just seemed to be adding to the doom and gloom already out there. So instead, a friend suggested I write a recipe for a chocolate cake. The problem is – I’m not much of a baker (I’ll leave it to Nadiya from the Bake Off). What I can do, and have been proud of for some time, is knowing how to make a great cup of chai.

Chai is amazing. Chai is nutritious, tasty, warming, soothing, sweet. Purists might object at this point that chai is simply a South Asian word for “tea” and what I really mean to say is masala chai (“spiced tea”) or doodh patti chai (“milk leaf-tea”) which is a milky tea (“tea latte” in some places). But for me, in English at least, chai refers to a broad family of teas that involve milk and spices in whatever combination.

Chai is great, because it reminds us how interconnected the world is. For chai to exist, you needed tea (originally) from China and spices from India and the Americas, brewed together in a metaphor fit for the era we live in.

And it also just sounds great. Chai. An etymologist out there might be able to tell me the origin of the word, but everyone uses it. Chai in Hindi and Urdu, saa in Bengali, shay in Arabic, cha in Japanese, and something that sounds a lot like chai used colloquially in Ireland too. I can just imagine some proto-European tribe millennia ago in misty pre-history, brewing tea leaves and spices with cow-juice and calling it chai and thereby searing the word into the subconscious of descendants and cultures that would follow.

It’s origins are rooted in healing practices. It’s found in books of unani – a system of medicine practiced by Muslim Moghuls as well as across the Islamicate word, and of course in the multifaith milieu of the Indian subcontinent, the benefits of the humble spiced chai are found in works of Ayurveda too.

Perhaps readers are hearing this, and thinking “chai isn’t bad, but I prefer coffee” and yeah, coffee is fantastic. But chai is special. Coffee is about work, productivity, efficiency, mental sharpness. Chai on the other hand is about relaxing, comfort, healing. Something about it seems more wholesome than coffee.

I was once told that the scholars of Islam used to sometimes debate this very fact – which is better, tea or coffee. One particular scholar however won the debate on somewhat unfair grounds. He said the Prophet Muhammad appeared to him in a dream, and told him “coffee shares three qualities with the hellfire, it is dark, it is hot, it is bitter, but it is beloved to God because it keeps his servants awake in worship”. Of course, by orthodox requirements in Islamic theology, we have to discount this hadith for its unverifiable chain of narration and so the debate is still wide open. My own contention is that descriptions of Paradise in the Quran are replete with references to milk and honey (rivers of them in fact), two key ingredients for a good chai, and so certainly an indication of its favourability.

Anyway, by now you should be wanting a cup of chai. So here is my recipe, perfected over countless attempts through the years.

Double-A’s Chai Latte:

1. Add milk and water to a saucepan in a 2/1 ratio (2 cups of milk, 1 cup of water). Optional: A small amount of evaporated milk (unsweetened). It can add a distinctively different flavour to the chai.

2. Add black tea leaves, ideally loose leaf but tea bags can work. For three cups of chai, two tea bags.

3. Add several cardamom pods, two slices of ginger, star anise, a stick of cinnamon, a few cloves, a single bay leaf and brew to boiling. Don’t think too much about the exact quantities, let the hand of fate guide you. Optional: You can add turmeric, nutmeg, black pepper or saffron. I don’t usually.

4. Sweeten. I like to add a dessert spoon honey to my three cups. It is enough to sweeten, bring out the flavours, balance the bitterness of the tea without overpowering. Alternatively, you can add condensed milk or just ordinary sugar, but neither work as well as honey in my opinion.

5. Bring to boil at least twice. This should make it nice and frothy, and give it a nice skin on the top of congealed milky goodness.

6. Pour out and enjoy.

So if you’ve never had a chai before, try the above, and if you have, then give my particular recipe a shot.

About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.