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Art of chai: Connecting tea-making to heritage, growing up

Making chai is relaxing, deeply personal and an art. – Photo by Klara Avsenik / Unsplash

Chai is a complicated drink to make. 

You need a precise amount of water to patti (or black tea) ratio. Break one cardamom pod into the pot for each cup of milk added. Then wait for the mixture to boil until the water is a particular dark brown, then add milk.

Use a paweh, a scoop-like metal instrument, and continue to mix the tea until it’s a nice brownish almond color. Although I’ve made chai almost every day since I was 15 years old, I still mess up.

I spend time painstakingly measuring the right amount of patti and water to absolute precision. I carefully oversee the chai, trying to figure out what it needs. Is it too light? That means I need to add more patti. Is it too dark? Let’s add more milk.

But if there’s anything I’ve learned in my six and a half years of making chai, it's that you can take all the time in the world. Slowly coax the tea to life, count out every time it boils up, stir it well so it doesn’t burn on the bottom — you could check the chai’s color and add more patti, but it could still end up undercooked or overcooked. That’s just life.

Chai-making is no joke. Every Pakistani gathering starts and ends with chai. 

Uncles of all ages sit cross-legged in big circles surrounded by big pillows embroidered with mirrors and colorful threads, animatedly talking about politics and scratching their beards.

“Mera beta, chai tho lakay aana,” My dad calls out. “My child, can you bring some chai?”

Meanwhile, the women sit in the kitchen or upstairs chatting away about when they're going to Pakistan or how long until salwar kameez are in fashion again.

One day, I made chai five times.

Chai-making is sometimes the calmest part of my day, with the sizzling of the water boiling the patti to a lovely brown shade, slowly adding the milk into the water mixture and seeing the dark amber liquid turning to a light almond color when the milk mixes.

Chai gives me 10 minutes of uninterrupted thinking. So I think about life. I think about my dreams. I think about what I want to do today. It’s a great escape right before a hectic day of college classes and work.

But tea is serious business. It’s nerve-wracking — especially when making it for 10-plus people.

What if I mess up? What if nobody drinks it? My chai reputation is on the line, so I better make it right!

When I was 15, I made my first cup of chai.

Making tea is a passageway to adulthood for a Brown girl, and I’m no different. When I made my first cup, my dad gave me $20.

“I’m so proud,” he said. But deep down, I also think about what chai-making means as a woman and in South Asian culture. In the morning and after a long day at work, drinking chai brings our South Asian family together. 

But I also have realizations as making chai is the passageway to adulthood. That also means the expectations to continue making chai are there, especially for South Asian girls, and that I’ve grown up and will now learn to make other things, too, like roti and salaan. 

But so far, I refuse to make anything else. I don’t enjoy the taste of roti or most salaans, and I will officially be a grown-up the moment I make those.

I make chai for my dad, my mom and my uncles. I set the tiny fancy teacups onto a golden tray my mom got from an antique shop. I put sugar in a bowl, placing teaspoons beside the bowl, so it’s easier for everyone to add sugar into their teacups. I decorate a tiny plate with British tea biscuits until the cookies make a little pyramid. I set everything up aesthetically on the tray. And then carefully carry it out of the kitchen.

Afterward, I walk up the stairs to my room with my own cup of steaming hot chai. I sit at my table with my laptop in front of me. I take a sip of the foamy goodness, and I feel the tiredness dissipate — the art of chai.

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