The Year In Food » Fine Seasonal Eating

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When I was nineteen, I launched my very first entrepreneurial enterprise: I started a very tiny chai-making operation. I made it in my mother’s kitchen, bottled it in gallon-size milk jugs, and delivered it in the basket of my old, avocado-green Schwinn bicycle to my single client: the coffee shop where I worked at the time. I was inspired to make chai because I had a life-altering cup of it from another young company: Nub Chai. Theirs was pretty mind blowing: it packed a ridiculously strong ginger punch, and was teeth-achingly sweet with the rich, molasses flavor of whole cane sugar. You know what they say about imitation being the sincerest form of flattery? Well, my little enterprise was just that. I wasn’t really trying to make my own mind blowing cup of chai. I was trying to recreate theirs.

Chai spices

Fast forward two years. At twenty-one I was confused and restless and searching, intently, for some kind of meaning or bigness or system or structure. I don’t know what I was looking for, but I was having a hard time finding it. A friend and I schemed a three month trip to India. It was probably the craziest thing I had ever done. It was certainly the most brave and definitely the most foolhardy. And we did it. We spent three challenging, difficult, overwhelming and eye-opening months in India.


By far my favorite thing about those three months was traveling the country by train. It was an experience unto itself: a world-in-miniature happening in motion. Most of the train windows didn’t have glass; they were just rectangular spaces with a metal grate, which made me feel closer to the landscape outside the car. It was a more subdued way of observing the culture, considering that nothing was censored along the tracks. Whole shanty towns sprung up along the edges of stations, and so many of the rituals of living – cleaning, cooking, fighting, sleeping and shitting – could be witnessed from the train window.

Tea party

At all hours of day and night, a parade of sellers would pass through with all kinds of sweets and snacks and chai and coffee. The chai wallah called out loudly: chai, chai; chai, chai, over and over. It was often served in little earth-colored clay cups, and they were meant to be smashed on the tracks when you finished. I loved those little bowls and brought a few home, but I have no idea where they are now.

I hadn’t made chai for years before coming upon this recipe from my friend Rachel. It tastes best if you add the milk and let it simmer all together for a little bit, as this recipe does. It’s rather making me fall in love all over again. And writing about India makes me want to go back there – it’s the first time since going, so very many years ago, that I’ve had any desire to return. I need to gather some more of those clay cups.

Perennial Plate’s recent video on a day in India does a pretty spot-on job of capturing the sense of the place.

And Darjeeling Limited captures that surreal, detached world that happens so uniquely on the train in India so very well.

And speaking of tea, check out this interview with my pal Leela on Tea Cup Tea.

via Rachel Cole, who got the recipe from her friend Kate.

5 one-inch slices of ginger
1.5 cups water
4 whole cardamom pods, crushed
4 black peppercorns
1 stick cinnamon
4 teaspoons loose black tea, such as Assam
1/2 cup milk of choice (I used almond milk)
2 tablespoons honey or sugar

In a saucepan over medium heat, add the ginger slices and water. When the water is hot, but before it begins to boil, add the cardamom pods, peppercorns and cinnamon. Once the water boils, add the black tea and turn off heat. Cover and allow to steep for three to four minutes.

Heat the pot over a medium flame once more, and add the milk and honey now. Let the mixture simmer for another three or four minutes. Turn off heat, and serve.

  • thecitygourmand - Gorgeous, reminds me of the chai I had in India from the chai wallahs. Great memories!ReplyCancel

  • Brian @ A Thought For Food - What an amazing story. I had no idea that you did that. So cool! This chai is exactly what I need right now as I freeze my butt off.ReplyCancel

  • Jess - I just made my first trip to India in April, and had a similarly magical experience riding the trains. India was so overwhelming and wonderful and different fromany place I’ve ever been – thank you for capturing it so beautifully.ReplyCancel

  • Sasha - You’ve reminded me of the big plans I had to fill my kitchen with chai. I was in India for four months and got back one year ago. I kept a journal with all of the foods that I wanted to recreate – starting of course with the basic, chai – but when I got home I fell back into my old cooking habits, including big pot of coffee and not big pots of chai.

    I look forward to making this recipe.ReplyCancel

  • Stephanie @ okie dokie artichokie - Chai, gosh I love it so. And I’ve been so meaning to make my own batch of it too– thanks for the reminder and inspiration! And a trip to India sounds amazing, holy cow.ReplyCancel

  • Natasha - I love that story! I’ve never thought about making chai at home but I imagine it’s amazing. Will definitely have to try. Beautiful photos too, by the way!ReplyCancel

  • Laura - Loved your stories! Everyone says the train is the best/worst/most wonderful/craziest thing in India. It is true that The Darjeeling Limited captures it as a bizarre microcosm on the move. And chai is so breathtaking in any context–love your specification of Assam tea. Definitely my favorite cuppa as of late.ReplyCancel

  • Pat Bagg - If anyone who reads this posting is now longing for real chai and you happen to live in the New England area, in the beautiful village of Salisbury Connecticut, there is a tea room called Chaiwalla. Mary Obrien brews very authentic chai and the most delicious food to accompany it. It is definitely a “worth the detour” rating.ReplyCancel

  • Brittany Grace - Gorgeous sentiments. I can picture the train with a glassless window, revealing to you so many beautiful snapshots of living in India, from fascinating to touching to raw and ugly. I look forward to recreating the magical taste of real chai with this recipe. Thank you.ReplyCancel

  • Jessie M - I remember my first cup of chai. It was at the only Indian restaurant in my small home town. It was amazing. Starbucks pales in comparison. Almost twenty years later, I don’t live there any more but the restaurant is still going strong and I still think their chai is the best!ReplyCancel

  • Ashley - I absolutely loved this post!! Such a great story and you painted it all so vividly. Lovely photos as always.ReplyCancel

  • Stacy - Such good stories and memories, Kimberley. And I love the beautiful, slight chaos of the last photo — with those pretty, pretty spoons! (Also, you know, if you need a traveling buddy for a return trip to India, just give me a call…)ReplyCancel

  • Courtney - Chai is one of my favorite beverages, so much so that I find myself sneaking chai spices into anything and everything. I’ll have to try this version soon.

    I used to dream about taking a trip to India, though as I’ve gotten older that dream seemed to all but disappear… until this post. Thanks!ReplyCancel

  • sara - love hearing of your memories, so sweet. I have only made chai from scratch one time and it was so delightful. I need to try this recipe, perfect time of year for it.ReplyCancel

  • kickpleat - Beautiful story and lovely memories. I haven’t made chai in ages so I think this is a nice reminder. I totally remember my first cup of chai – I thought it was like cake in a cup.ReplyCancel

  • Eileen - A hot, fragrant chai would be pretty perfect right about now. This blend sounds wonderful!ReplyCancel

  • Sarah Rose - Equal parts beauty and truth. I’m twenty, looking for that same sort of comfort in the world. Wishing those answers came as easily as a cup of Chai. Love.ReplyCancel

  • Manu - I really love your photographs!!ReplyCancel

  • Manu - i really love your photographs!ReplyCancel

  • Emilia - This looks awesome! Please look at our student project… The blog “Meal of the Year” for even more delish recipes!!! =)ReplyCancel

  • la domestique - I really enjoyed reading this post. I know there are places I visited years ago where the travel was tough and I needed time before feeling the urge to return. I’ve actually never tried chai, even though that’s what everyone drinks here in Boulder. Maybe I will now.ReplyCancel

  • Barbara - That chai looks amazing, and perfect for snowy evenings. I love your photos too. Thanks for sharing!ReplyCancel

  • Lucid Food - Hi Kimberley, this is absolutely sumptuous looking. I love your photos. I’m in San Francisco from now through may, let’s meet up for chai! -LouisaReplyCancel

  • MikeVFMK - I have loved chai since the very first time I tasted it. Hooked. I can’t wait to try making it myself thanks to you. Love that you sold it back in the day on your bike. Classic.ReplyCancel

  • sarah - Beautiful story, and you are gutsy! At 21 I would have been too afraid to do something like that.

    I have made homemade chai over the years, but never a recipe that I’ve fallen in love with. I’m going to have to try this out this week!ReplyCancel

  • Allie @ The Nutritional Epiphany - I love everything about this! The story, the photography, the fact that it is about chai. Just reading it makes me feel warm inside! I like that you had the entrepreneurial bug at a young age :)ReplyCancel

  • Nidhi - Hey! Wonderful post.. I’m from India myself.. And regularly make and drink tea.. Seeing the picture you have posted made me realise that the milk in this tea actually got curdled. This does not bring out the real flavour of the tea.. Rather spoils it.
    This might be because of adding ginger at the wrong time.. It should be added while making concoction with other spices.. After a boil milk should be added.. Then you tea will be just perfect. Also, add the honey after removing it from heat.ReplyCancel

  • Abi - This is beautiful! I was in India in 2008 and still vividly remember the Chai sellers — everywhere! I’ve never been able to find a cup of tea similar to the ones in India. Spicy but sweet, bracing but loving too. Thanks for this recipe! I will be sure to try it tomorrow.
    PS — I tried to subscribe by email but haven’t been receiving them. Can you check to see if I’m on the list? Thanks!ReplyCancel

  • Laura (Blogging Over Thyme) - Wow! Pretty incredible story. Love how you started your own “business” at 19 :) I’ve always wanted to go to India, hopefully one day I can!ReplyCancel

  • Alison - This post was beautiful and brought me back 2.5 years ago to my own trip to India. I can clearly envision my scenic (and smelly!) train ride through Northern India listening to my chai wallah chanting “chai, chai!” all night long (who drinks chai in the middle of the night?!). This chai looks fabulous and I hope to recreate it and be transported back again to the beauty of India. Thank you!ReplyCancel

  • Laura - There’s nothing I love more than a good cup of chai–especially during these chilly winter months!ReplyCancel

  • Sally - I’ve always wanted to go to India and I love that this chai has more of that spice that Indian chair does versus typical American chai, which tastes a lot sweeter to me. Great post!


  • MK - This seems good, but as a chai and chai latte (called dood patti in pakistan) enthusiast I like to keep it simple. I don’t add much to my cup of chai but I cook it more than usual so that it gives a strong flavor. It also gives good color to it! The only thing I some times add to it is cinnamon.ReplyCancel

  • Stephanie - When I first discovered chai, I frowned upon it… I didn’t think it would be any good for this “coffee” drinker. But someone told me to try it over ice and make it a cold drink.. I was hooked. I can’t wait to try this recipe! First I will try it as indicated, then I will try it over ice. I bet it will be good both ways! Thanks!ReplyCancel

  • Brandon Elijah Scott - Great blog, loving this! :)ReplyCancel

  • Kahkasan Akhi - Love Chai, and love your teapots!ReplyCancel

  • Kiran @ - Love chai! We keep it simple here by adding ginger, cardamom pods and cloves. So yummy~ReplyCancel

  • Rachel - Thanks so much for the recipe. I love chai and used to buy it all the time in the US already prepared in boxes and all I had to do was heat it up and add milk. In Bangkok, though, it’s more difficult to find so I’ve been trying to make my own.

    Will try your recipe and let you know how awesome it is :)ReplyCancel

  • Kulsum@JourneyKitchen - I guess if you do make it to India you should consider Rajasthan this time around :) As far as I know all Indians boil their tea after adding the milk to so you are spot on!ReplyCancel

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