The Beauty of Micro-batch Cha-Masala
or why pumpkin spiced anything taste like the kitchen sink
I had a delightful conversation with Leena of LeenaEats this morning about the range of masala chai’s preferred in the Indian subcontinent. Thanks to fellow cookbook author Monica Bhide for helping make the connection. Leena is researching the lure of two quintessentially Gujarati favorites in the context of her own lineage: masala cha and thepla (a spiced griddle fried bread popular in Gujarat).
As we talked, I realized there was so much more to the two than what appears so simple on paper. Thanks Leena for making me nostalgic about two of my favorite eats. Let’s talk about the cha(i) first.
As my caffeinated beverage of choice, it is no secret to those who know me – that I am very (very) particular about my cha(i). For reasons unknown, or perhaps the fact that our manny, Gaju, took such care to ensure that he always made me a fresh cup, I am quite a stickler for what passes as a good cup of cha(i). I am known to even go make my own in my hosts’ home – yes how rude of me. But I digress.
Tea was only offered to me as a teenager, my mom believed that it prevents bone growth and hinders development, so there I was, sipping that distasteful Protinex in cold milk, before I jumped onto the school bus. And then one day, I learned how to make my first cup, on a little two burner stove in a tiny galley-style kitchen in Parel. I must have been 14 when the love affair started. I would experiment on my own. Sometimes I went to visit Ba, my maternal grandmother, when she lived in Godrej Colony. Twice a day, I waited for her tea-time. She brewed a cup of cha and offered it to me with a side of fresh baked and heavily buttered Brun Pav straight from bakery guy’s basket, whose first stop was always her apartment. Sometimes a dash of ginger or lemon grass but more often a touch of mint freshly plucked from her little garden went into the pot of tea. She found all sorts of leaf teas and sometimes added a pinch of a more expensive leaf tea to make it ‘special’. And then, she brewed magic.
There is no going back from the delicious addiction of warm buttered Brun bread, dunked in beautiful, handmade mugs filled to the brim with freshly made cha. Grandma’s can spoil you rotten with some of the best food memories.
Another special memory of tea-time is eavesdropping on my mother and her friends when they gathered. When we lived in Bombay, until my departure to the US in 1995, my mothers’ friend circle was a select group of police officers’ wives, and a large group of chatty home-makers of affluent Gujarati business men. Mother had a natural affinity for her Gujarati friends and we visited one particular one more often – Bhanu Aunty. Among those women, some had a ‘maharaj’ or daily chef, others did without. We have spent many weekends visiting, chatting, socializing and partying with Bhanu Aunty and her children at their home, and when we visited, her friends gathered. The best part of any afternoon with mothers’ friends was their afternoon cup of masala cha. Seven or eight saree clad giggling women huddled in the coolest part of the house on the floor and expected the masala cha to arrive in a large tray, if there was a ‘maharaj’ or one of the young girls from the home made some. The setting was the perfect opportunity for regular cha-masala recipe-swaps, based on season of course, tales of trial and error, discussions about where to find the best raw materials, anecdotes and gossip. At the end of it all, the women began checking who in the group was willing to make an extra half kilo of cha-masala for their next batch. It was just how they ‘hung out’.
With a mutt-like mixed background such as mine, mother would frequently experiment with what she tasted at her friends’ homes, what she may have tasted at her mothers’ home, or base a new brew off of the fact that there was fresh mint or really nice ginger in the market! For a beverage that came to India because of colonizers whose damages far outweigh their contributions, people from India have such a twisted relationship with it. We experiment with it, love it, and love our own brews with a passion. I would not be surprised if women actually put their cha masala recipes in their safety deposit boxes (or bank lockers as they are referred to) alongside precious jewelry, and pass down recipes to their children who may care.
I get to visit an old college friend a few times a year, and believe me, we talk about our latest finds in cha-masala’s nearly every time. Sometimes I may even take her a small batch, and we never negatively critique someone else’s blends – because of course, each set of taste buds is different. But, truthfully, I will have none of that pumpkin-spice thing, it feels like a kitchen sink brew from my spice cabinet. What I find in the market place is invariably too strong, lacking attention to ‘finer nuances’ of flavor and fragrance, health or TASTE… and it feels like everything in the masala bin and the cat’s hair was added in. I know FDA won’t allow the last part, but I am pretty sure someone is laughing their way to the bank at the mass-hysteria created by their concoction. Smarter folks know to find a good blend that is unique, and actually good for their bodies! Each blend for cha-masala is recipe is different, the choice of spices is different, proportions are suited to personal taste and of-course, there is always room for adaptation.
I do make my own blend a few times a year and my mom’s blend is slightly different than mine. Because the quantities of spices used in the blend vary from a pinch of this and a dash of that to a half pound of something else, I only prepare a micro-batch of this masala a few times a year. It has a very good shelf life, but I’ve never been bothered by that, because I use it up quickly anyway. It has lots of spices: cardamom, cinnamon… and the others. The only way you can get your hands on the recipe, is if you are a named beneficiary in my will, cause that’s where it will be.
Micro-batch spice tins have to be pre-ordered. So, let me know if you are looking for Cha Masala for your winter-gifting needs, order through this link:
Each tin contains enough masala for 20-30 cups of cha, depending on how strong you like your brew, and does not include tea, dairy or sugar – my cha masala is the special touch that goes into the brew.
Brun Pav recipes can be found on the web.
Another bakery bread popular in Bombay is Ladi Pav or Pav.
The recipes for Pav (Bread) is on page 176 and the recipe for Spinach Thepla is on page 270 of ‘A Dozen Ways to Celebrate: Twelve Decadent Indian Feasts For the Culinary Indulgent’