My name is Shilpa and I am a chai snob. I’m not sure exactly when and how this happened but I profess that it’s true. This may be the result of growing up in an Indian household: the sound of a mortar and pestle breaking apart whole spices, the smell of freshly grated ginger, the mindful addition of tea to bubbling water, the careful calculation of the water to milk ratio. Ah. That may be it.
I drank chai before I drank cow’s milk*, and I’m willing to bet even before I ate solids.
I come from a strong lineage of what I like to call avid chai architects: those who created their own version of this soul-satisfying tea, but within the confines of “traditional” [Indian] chai ingredients. Namely, milk, water, loose leaf black tea, a decent dose of sweetener, as well as some hint of spice (ginger, fennel, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves). One’s chai is usually influenced by the region of India that one comes from. My ancestral chai architects passed their magic down to my parents, who, lucky for my palate, hail from two very different regions of India. My Mom’s chai has spicy hints of ginger while my Dad’s chai is a fun melange of fennel, cardamom and clove: I would gladly welcome either version in my mug.
For many years my taste buds yearned for a type of chai that I just couldn’t put my finger on. What was that combination that reminded me of my childhood, which comforted me to the bone? One day while visiting my parents, I detected a familiar scent in the air. My Mom poured me a cup of the concoction and the first sip confirmed what my nose was telling me. “Is there lemongrass in here,” I inquired? “Yes,” replied my Mom. “Gosh I feel like I’m in ba’s house when I drink this,” I expressed, and my Mom excitedly said “Ba always made chai with lemongrass!”
This was it- the flavours my taste buds had been missing for years!
My lovely grandmother, or ba as I used to call her, always made this chai. And when I drink it, I can imagine myself sitting in Ahmedabad, India, where she would spend part of the year. Another sip takes me back to her kitchen in Toronto, drinking hot tea together out of saucers. My ba is my favourite chai architect, and this version of chai is an homage to her.
Lemograss chai, or leelee chai, is a staple in the Indian state of Gujarat. You can find chai stalls lining up the streets, where they serve this steamy delight in tiny shot glass portions.
Below, you’ll find my twist, which is just perfect for me. On a chilly day like the one’s we’ve been having lately in Toronto, or on a day when the snow falls in full gusto, like in my hometown of Buffalo, NY, this chai is warm, soothing and damn delightful.
*Of course, the chai I drank as an infant had cow’s milk in it, though.
The perfect cup of lemongrass chai (leelee chai)
- This makes one generous North American serving of chai.
- As with all recipes, it’s vital to use the freshest ginger and lemongrass you can find, as older ginger completely alters the flavour of this chai.
- This makes a spicy warm cup of tea. For less spice, add less ginger.
- I usually drink this with honey, but it’s great with jaggery, brown sugar, coconut sugar, etc.
What I’m listening to
John Coltrane- In a sentimental mood (on repeat)
1 1/3 cup water
1 T + 1 t grated ginger
1 heaped T fresh sliced lemongrass
1 1/4 t loose leaf black tea (Assam, Darjeeling, or other)
1/2 cup soymilk ( or milk of your Preference)
Dash of cinnamon
1 1/2 t sweetener of choice
What I do
Add your water to a small saucepan and heat on high. As the water heats grate your ginger directly into water and add your lemongrass. When the water begins to boil, add tea leaves, and after 15 seconds add milk. Before the tea comes to a second boil add a dash of cinnamon. Once the tea come to a full second boil, take off the heat, strain into your tea cup, stir in sweetener, and enjoy!