James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Masala Chai Is Also a Cure for Long, German Winters

Masala Chai Is Also a Cure for Long, German Winters

Masala Chai in Schleifreisen

My husband’s grandmother, whom I call Omi, or granny, lives in a small town of fewer than 500 people in Thuringia, eastern Germany, in what was formerly the (socialist) German Democratic Republic. We’re visiting her so we can make her a cup of masala chai. We’ve just come back from Mumbai, where we spent our whirlwind holiday eating and drinking.

I seem to be the only foreigner around in this sleepy village. My Malaysian Chinese features stand out, and I feel more self-conscious than ever. We reach Omi’s doorsteps, shivering under our fall jackets, trying to re-acclimatize to the cold.

A local guy we met in Mumbai on Couchsurfing, Vish, took us around to sample the street fare. That included drinking  homemade chai at his home. I was convinced that it could help us get through the ghastly winters in Germany. Vish’s wife agreed, and sent us home with 2.2 pounds of tea.

When we got back to Germany, we couldn’t wait to share our treasure trove. Life has been hard to Omi lately; her husband passed away earlier this year.

She’s delighted to see us, and kisses our cheeks and invites us in to her kitchen. It is warm and pine-scented inside. She’s an octogenarian who lives alone, and she remains a vigilant housekeeper; her kitchen is spotless as ever. As usual, there’s a homemade cake on the table surrounded by dainty plates and matching cups. She looks unusually chirpy today. She chatters away, as we catch up with gossip.

She brings me a little pot that I fill with water. When the water comes to a boil, I pour in the tea leaves, followed by a pinch of masala spice powder, honey, cinnamon, and grated ginger. Later, as I add fresh milk to the bubbling concoction, the dark murky water froths into latte brown.

“Oh, das riecht aber herrlich!” she says excitedly over my shoulders. That smells lovely. The air, now thick with ginger and spices, does smell glorious.

The tea is finally ready. My husband pours the tea into the cups. The first sip is uplifting, the blend of spices offering a potent mood boost. The second sip soothes and calms. I’m glad we have 2.2 pounds to last us for the next few winters.

We recount our adventures in Mumbai. Omi listens attentively; she has never been abroad. When she was younger, she camped by the lakes and hiked mountains with my husband’s grandfather, but never ventured beyond East Germany. “It wasn’t so easy then, in the GDR time. We couldn’t go anywhere else,” she says.

She takes another sip of chai, as she imagines us eating green chutney sandwiches and dosas with grimy fingers, surrounded by exhaust fumes. Her face visibly relaxes.

“All the way from India, eh? If India tastes like this, I’m sure it’s a lovely place to visit.”

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