The recipe for chai is nearly as simple as the one for a bowl of Count Chocula; the former just has a few more ingredients. To wit: To make the delectable Indian tea, simply toss any or all of the following ingredients into a pot of boiling water: cardamom pods, a little chunk of nutmeg, cloves (maybe ten), one or two cinnamon sticks, a few slices of fresh ginger, maybe a half-dozen peppercorns. Slowly boil, and while you do so, grab a book of short stories (we'd suggest maybe Stephen Millhauser's Little Kingdoms), and read. Twenty minutes later, add spice nectar.
That brewing time is key for a couple of reasons. First, of course, the boiling infuses the spices into the water. But nearly as important, the luscious scent will curl around the apartment, sneak into your nostrils and settle into the sofa and chandeliers. By the time you're done reading the story, the odors will have merged with the atmosphere.
Turn off the heat, drop in a couple bags of black tea, and steep for a few minutes. While you wait, wipe off the kitchen counters, pick your nose, or maybe think up a dope rhyme. Add some milk and, if you like, honey. Bingo: You've got chai.
Got space to relax, some time to occupy
I'm boiling up some cardamom
Gonna drink me some chai
Chai was invented by an Indian or Siamese king whose family kept the recipe under wraps as "royal property" for centuries. But that sounds like malarkey; any idiot can taste the distinct spices in a good chai. Overall the creation is so simple and universally understood that a royal trademark would quickly be made moot by an expert peasant lady with a decent understanding of flavors. More likely, the prohibitive cost of spices back in the day rendered the underclass incapable of making chai. That's changed; you can get enough ingredients to make a season's worth of chai at any international grocery for less than five bucks.
In addition to cooking it at home, you can also get chai at most Indian restaurants. House of India, home of an excellent lunch buffet, makes a mean one.
When asked for the recipe during a recent lunch visit, manager Satish Kumar huddles with a bevy of waiters and bussers, whispers something, and the group confers. He returns. "Clove, ginger, cinnamon sticks, cardamom. Me personally, I make mine with green and black cardamom, and that's it. If I'm feeling sick, I might add some ginger."
The House's chai is subtle and very, very complex, but that's not news. The restaurant, located at the intersection of Delmar and I-170, specializes in blending flavors to create depth. Its chai, unsullied by any sort of sugar (packets are on the table), emphasizes the clove and cinnamon, keeps the cardamom in the back and contains only a hint of ginger.
Order it after a couple of helpings from the buffet, then relax and sip. The day's only halfway over, but it's peaking right now, when the chai's hot and the belly's full.