Tonight chai warms my heart and soul. As I press the warm mug to my chest, I inhale the spices that seem to dance in perfect harmony with each other. Just like a stone laying in the sun, I absorb the heat from the cup and instant warmth spreads through my body.
Although I’m surrounded by the Alps, this simple cup of creamy masala chai transports me to my days in India. The tantalizing scent of cinnamon and ginger trigger memories of long journeys through the mountains stretching south of Mumbai to Goa.
One cold morning we stopped for breakfast at a mountainside open-air restaurant. The drop in temperature had made my fingers stiff. With my stomach growling and with the urgent need to warm up, I ordered tea before our breakfast.
Minutes went by and our food arrived first: upma, idly sambar, potato vada and uthapam. Every dish was deliciously spicy and fulfilling. Impatiently, I awaited my chai with the same enthusiasm children reserve for dessert after being forced to eat their vegetables.
Finally, it arrived. Steam rose from the tiny cups it was served in. The masala chai stood before me, I bowed my head and inhaled a swirl of spices that woke up my senses and urged me to drink. Just one sip was enough for me to close my eyes and revere its creaminess.
Rich, creamy, sweet and fragrant. This is what masala chai should be. Why had I had never experienced chai like this in the United States? Was the method of preparation different? What were these Indians doing that the ones in the United States were not?
It all came down to the quality of the milk used in its preparation.
In India, the milk was fresh and did not have a two-month expiration date (unlike a lot of milk varieties sold in the United States). You would be surprised how much extending the shelf life of a product decreases its flavor.
Here in Piemonte the milk is fresh, wholesome and rich. Combined with black tea and spices, it becomes the perfect vehicle for a divine chai experience.
I may be miles away from India but tonight, as I press the hot mug against my chest and close my eyes, I am back driving through the mountains on our long journey to Goa.