With the enthusiasm of a kid about to board a shiny new bike, I joined Shachi Mehra’s chai-centric cooking class at Adya in the Anaheim Packing House. Mehra, Adya’s executive chef-owner, is a master of inventive Indian street food. This day it was her irresistible chai that I’d come to conquer, the spiced, milky tea-based brew that is so adored. I cozied up with 16 chai-loving students seated at an elongated L-shaped table on the restaurant’s private boxcar patio.
Once Mehra started the class, her passion for chai and the important role it plays in India cuisine, was palpable. She explained that the word “chai” translates as “tea.” So, if you order a chai tea, essentially you are saying “tea tea.”
“Chai is the life’s blood of daily life in India,” she explained, her dark eyes shifting from the array of essential spices to her attentive students. “Go to someone’s house in India any time of day or night, and you will be offered chai. Go shopping in fancier shops and you will be offered chai. My business partner (Chef Sandeep Basrur) drinks eight cups a day. At four or five in the afternoon, I may want a cocktail, but he wants more chai.”
Grandmother’s tea challenge
“I remember when we were very young, my parents loved to go on road trips and chai was not a ‘thing’ in this country yet,” Mehra recalled about her childhood years living in New Jersey with parents who had immigrated from India. “On the road my poor little grandmother would be desperate for chai. Conceptually none of the things that were available were chai. We would go to McDonald’s for breakfast and she would order tea. It was hot water, a tea bag and cold milk. Essentially none of those things made chai; it was the worst experience for her.”
Now there are many more options that are riffs on chai than there used to be. Walk into a Starbucks or coffee house and you can get chai or chai latte. Generally, they aren’t like homemade Indian chai because they put in a lot of vanilla and/or cinnamon. And they are very, very sweet.
“Some people like less milk, some like more milk in their chai,” she explained. “Some people put more cardamom, some more ginger. Some put black pepper. Some add honey, but it completely changes the flavor. How dark or light to make it can also vary. Every household has their own system or method, or their own recipe. There are also regional differences.”
She revealed that her version of chai was influenced by her dad’s efficient microwaved rendition, a style achieved using the least number of dishes and time. He would bring water to a boil in a pot on the stove. The perfect amount of whole milk, about 1/4 cup, was placed in a cup with a tea bag. It microwaved for about 1 1/2 minutes, but a visual clue was more important than a timer for knowing when to stop. Once the milk came to a boil inside the cup, the microwave would be stopped, and he would count to 25. Then the microwave-boil-count process was repeated two more times. The cup was topped off with boiling water from the stove.
“At Adya we add black cardamom, green cardamom, ginger, fennel seed, cinnamon, black tea and whole milk; we don’t add sugar just in case someone doesn’t like their chai sweetened,” she said. “I normally like my chai with a little bit of sugar and a lot of ginger.”
You could hear sounds of unanimous approval as class members sampled the chai. My nostrils welcomed soothing tendrils of scent and steam; the spice-spiked flavors seemed in perfect balance.
It was a surprise to find out that sandwiches play an important part in Indian cuisine. Their preparation was the focus of the remaining class time.
“I was the sandwich maker in my family, making sandwiches for my brother and sister,” she said with a mix of pride and glee. “Even though we lived across from the school I was always late to physics class. My friends helped me. My job was to bring cucumber sandwiches for snacks.
“For breakfast we often eat toast with bhujia, little crunchy snacks that are slightly spicy; they are delicious with chai,” she said. And chutney sandwiches are very popular.”
Attendees found out how delicious they were partnered with chai. She made Tomato Saffron Chutney Sandwiches, explaining that the chutney is versatile and can be a delicious accompaniment to salmon. It was spread on bread along with softened cream cheese. Delicious.
Our Indian-sandwich curriculum included three more scrumptious samples: Green Chutney and Cucumber Sandwiches, Curried Cauliflower Sandwiches, and Egg Salad Sandwiches.
The class was so popular that Chef Mehra will be offering the class again on Saturday, September 15. Held outside in the private boxcar patio at 11 AM, the cost is $35 per guest and includes recipes. Chai and sandwiches will be served with wine/beer or chai ( availability is limited).
Yield: 4 cups
2 cinnamon sticks, broken into small pieces
12 green cardamom
1 black cardamom
8 whole black peppercorns
2 tablespoons chopped ginger, or smashed 2-inch piece
4 1/2 cups water
2 1/2 cups milk
5 black tea bags (masala or plain)
Optional: sugar to taste, about 1 teaspoon
Cook’s notes: Chai can be reheated. It can be refrigerated and served cold.
- Place cinnamon in large saucepan. Break open cardamom pods with the flat edge of a chef’s knife or cleaver; add to saucepan along with peppercorns, ginger and water. Bring to boil on medium heat.
- Add milk and bring back to boil; simmer for 3 minutes, reducing heat if necessary.
- Add tea bags. Simmer, reducing heat if necessary, about 5 to 6 minutes, or until desired color is achieved (darker = stronger). Strain and serve. Sweeten to taste with sugar if desired, about 1 teaspoon.
Source: Executive Chef Shachi Mehra, Adya at Anaheim Packing House, 440 S Anaheim Blvd #201, Anaheim and Adya at 4213 Campus Dr, Irvine
Cathy Thomas is an award-winning food writer and has authored three cookbooks: “50 Best Plants on the Planet,” “Melissa’s Great Book of Produce,” and “Melissa’s Everyday Cooking with Organic Produce.”