Monday, December 12, 2011

Ek pyaali chai

A cup of tea, let's just put it this way, gets the attention it deserves in this household. We have been struggling with the prefect brand of chai-patti for the longest time and the discussion has been on-going long before chai latte became de rigeur in cafe parlance. Bhai, Taj Mahal used to taste different back in the day, my mother claims. I normally pipe in with increased pesticide levels as an explanation for this moodiness on the part of Taj Mahal. We should try Tata Tea, muses the husband. Sometimes we succumb to the organic promise of goodness and buy the brown packets of Darjeeling and Assam tea sold in Fab India. Do you remember the Society Tea ads, the husband and I, memories still firmly rooted in the eighties, ask each other. A quick trip down memory lane comes free, even if chai patti does not. I'd like to try the tea the pavement chaiwallah sells, it smells divine, says my mother, gentility struggling with the taste-buds. They use Wagh Bakri, says Mahesh knowledgeably, the source of this information a mystery. They boil it over and over again, the levels of caffeine would be through the roof, I observe. We all look at each other in silence, hoping that one of us will lead the charge to drink this lovely sounding beverage.

Pramod overhears this discussion in the car one day. Oho, didi, he looks at me in the rear-view mirror, you should try the tea we drivers drink. The chaiwallah brings it to us at four sharp, it will wake you up alright! I am not the one sleeping at four, I want to remind Pramod but I am too distracted by the promise of good tea. Really, do you think I could, err, get a cup, I ask hopefully. He goes silent at this. Clearly, the memsahib perched on top of a car, sharing a cup of tea with the driver-folk is not the done thing. I sigh and look away. False propriety equals the loss of a perfect cuppa.

And all this before we arrive at the actual making of the tea. We have had an unnatural level of turnover with cooks and I have come around to the point of view that part of the reason is the premium this family places on their cup of tea. The cooks are not too bad to begin with. Sure they put in too much sugar or milk but those are minor problems which we hasten to put right. Don't boil the water so much, you have to steep the chai-patti, not scald it to death, someone will offer. Always cover the chai ka bhagona and let it brew, brew, brew, someone else will poetically add. Arrey suno, boil the milk separately and then add it to the chai, I will shout in the general direction of the kitchen. And make sure you remember that some like it hot! The result is normally undrinkable and fed up with our endless instructions and their inability to please, the cooks wave goodbye and never return.

There is just so much that can go wrong with tea that it is a miracle that there are people who can make the perfect cup at all. Brew it too little and it lacks flavour. Too much and the customers are complaining about the bitterness. My mother often gives up and blames the water in Mumbai for all that goes wrong in the kitchen. Paani hi kharaab hai, she throws up her hands and well, how does one beat that? The kharaab paani does not good tea make. There are other issues to be mulled over. To add ginger or not to add ginger. Ditto elaichi. What about sugar? One could always serve it separately, I suppose but that's not how masala chai is made, the purists clamour. The milk of course deserves a chapter of its own. Full fat means the ghee will float on top, making everyone screw their collective nose in disgust and return the cup to the kitchen. Fat-free is also not acceptable, given how watery that renders the end-product nectar. I wistfully look at the tea advertisements where the family is happily united over a cup of tea, marital alliances are being made, women are coming unto their own, mothers-in-law are being pleased, husbands are proclaiming their undying devotion to their wives. Needless to say, that is not really the case when chai is served in this household.

It is no surprise then that filter kaapi has made inroads into a kitchen that is home to the UP-centric kashiphal ki subzi and boondi ka raita. The first jolt to the heart in the morning is now provided by perfectly-brewed coffee. But come four in the evening and everyone's favourite discussion is back in the house. Thoda zyaada pakk gayi, nahin?  

There we go again.