A prose piece about the ritual of chai-making by Mandeep Hothi.
My mom taught me how to make chai when I was young.
It didn’t involve a big, coming-of-age ceremony but after a lifetime of preparing it for guests, family, and friends, she’d grown tired of making it herself. Any time I brought out a tray of chai and snacks, guests made sly comments about how I was finally learning “household duties,” a signal that they considered it my maturation into a “Proper Indian Woman.”
The first time, she made me watch as she measured two cups of water, two heaping spoons of chai pati, and a spoon of sugar. Once the water began to boil, she poured in two cups of milk (always equal parts water and milk). Common sense was disregarded, and I was told to watch the pot very carefully until it began to boil. Once the dome of bubbling chai began to rise, I hurriedly turned off the heat and pulled the pot from the stove.
I placed the strainer into the mouth of our tea jug and tipped the pot over, watching the caramel-colored tea pour into the jug with determined eyes, hoping that my careful concentration would be enough to keep the tea from sloshing over the sides and onto the counter.
My chai was far removed from the kind of chai my parents and grandparents were accustomed to drinking. Sometimes too bitter from my heavy-handed addition of chai pati, sometimes too sweet from a slip of my hand with the sugar. But every time, without fail, my parents smiled from behind their steaming cups and told me it was the best cup they’d ever had, each cup better than the last.
Making chai became a ritual. Sometimes if I woke up early enough, I would make it in the mornings though I almost always made it in the afternoon. Making chai became a constant in my life. It was something I didn’t have to think about, something that didn’t require concise measurement like baking. Not everyone prefers chai the same way, so making it with too little chai pati or too much sugar is never necessarily wrong. It’s just not suited to your tastes. Someone out there probably takes their chai that way, and you just happened to stumble across their perfect cup. Chai is adaptable that way. It provides an unknowing comfort.
When my mother was confined to bedrest for a few weeks following an invasive surgery, I began waking up fifteen minutes earlier in the mornings to slip into the kitchen.
Place the pot on the stove, flick the gas and listen to it flicker until the spark catches flame. Measure out a cup of water, a spoon of chai pati, half a spoon of sugar. When it begins to boil, add the milk. Watch it foam and rise, but don’t let it get too far. Turn the stove off, pour the tea through the strainer to catch the used-up chai pati. Take out a plain white teacup and pour out one perfect cup of chai.
I would bring the cup upstairs and set it on her bedside table. She would see it and smile, a silent thank you. A single cup of chai was one of the simple pleasures I could comfort her with.
When I fell sick during a trip to India, my mother wasn’t there to comfort me.
I had been vomiting up everything I ate for a week straight, until I was waking up in the middle of the night to dry-heave into a dirty toilet bowl.
All I wanted was my mom’s steady hand on my back, telling me I would be alright. But she was back in America, and I was stranded in a homeland that was foreign.
My sister was with me, though, and at two o’clock in the morning she turned on the flickering fluorescent lights in the kitchen and began boiling a pot of water. She dropped a spoon of chai pati into the bubbling water, half a spoon of cane sugar, and mixed in some ajwain to help soothe my upset stomach. Once the water turned into a rich and promising brown, she tempered it into the familiar caramel color with half of a cup of milk.
Straining the chai out into a teacup, she told me to drink it.
“It’s okay if you throw it up. Just try.”
I took the cup in my hands and drank in little sips.
I didn’t have my mother’s comforting hand on my back, but I felt her presence in that cup of chai.
I said before that learning how to make chai didn’t involve any big coming-of-age ceremony, and that remains true. Most Desis know how to make chai, and they learn at a variety of ages. It doesn’t inaugurate you into adulthood, but it’s often passed on as a cultural reminder of where we come from.
Every morning and every afternoon, my parents pause what they’re doing to drink some chai. My grandparents did the same, and their parents before that.
When guests come to visit, friends or family, the first thing we do is ask them if they’d like a cup of chai.
A cup of chai holds more than just water and milk, sugar and chai pati.
It holds hospitality, culture, and comfort. It holds my mother’s love and care. It holds warmth.
My mother has taught me many things, and will continue to teach me well into my lifetime. But one of the most important things she taught me was how to care for myself through the simple things, how to bring home with me wherever I go in the form of a teacup.
Mandeep is a queer desi writer based in Sacramento. She is nineteen years old, and has spent most of those years writing. Almost all of her works are centered around people’s relationships to others, as well as questions of identity.