Dharamsala came to light on the world map in 1959 when His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama fled Tibet and subsequently established his “government in exile” there. Upwards of 100,000 Tibetan exiles have since settled in Dharamsala with most of them living in the village of McLeod Ganj near the higher elevation of the city. Also known as a hill station, Dharamsala’s name means “spiritual dwelling,” because it originated as a resting place for trekkers on pilgrimage. The entire area consists of three plateaus, gradually increasing in elevation and connected by a main road with interlacing side paths. At the base is the simple lower town with the Dalai Lama’s exiled home just above it and the more popular McLeod Ganj at the top. Because of its large Tibetan population, McLeod Ganj is often called “Little Lhasa” after the Tibetan capital city.
Tea drinking is a way of life among Tibetans in their adopted home.You’ll find vendors on street corners vigorously peddling their own particular blend of masala chai. Locals will swear by one café’s chai blend over another. Tibetans traditionally carry a bowl with them wherever they go. Tucked inside their chupa – a traditional Tibetan dress – the bowl is typically carried close to the heart. This is very convenient as Tibetans regularly drink tea all day long. Passionate about their avowed favorite beverage, they are known to have a distinct tea culture. The bowls are usually held with both hands and when refilling, the palm of the left hand faces upward to the sky.
My daily tea drinking commenced with breakfast at the Hotel Tibet where each morning I would request that the kitchen serve the beverage doctored with honey, ginger and lemon. Once out and about exploring the temples and shrines, the quest for a refill would gradually become urgent. Not one to settle for just any ordinary cup, I tried several chai shops before settling on my favorite. Were I were to return to Dharamsala, I swear I could find my chai cafe again.
Basically little more than a lean-to shed with an open kitchen fronted by a tidy patio, it was a ten-minute downhill hike from my hotel. With a few left turns onto dirt paths choked with vendors, scooters and shops, then past an outdoor produce market before one last left turn into a hidden alley and I had arrived.
There an Indian husband and wife held court, she dramatically pouring warm milked tea into chai glasses, he flipping half-toasted naan into the air. The mid-morning regulars included a trio of monks often engrossed in animated conversation and an assortment of backpackers. I’d take my regular perch against the patio’s back wall bench and watch the tableau set out before me. About 10 a.m., the sun would have just risen high enough behind the shed to hit the window glass over my head. A virtual spotlight, it bounced off the hard surface to cast a glow on all before me; the tea drinkers in front with the open kitchen behind them, a perfectly lighted stage set. To coin a phrase, it was “‘straight out of central casting.” No tea drinking experience before or since has compared. The photos tell the story.
Once home, I kept the memory of my favorite café alive with afternoon chai breaks. Searching the internet, I came across many recipes and settled on this one from Mother Earth Living. Here’s the recipe for basic black chai by Vicki Mattern, also available at: http://www.motherearthliving.com/cooking-methods/make-chai-basic-black-chai.aspx
Experiment by adding fennel seeds, coriander seeds, nutmeg, star anise, and lemon or orange peel to create your own favorite blend. Serves 2
If you prefer, omit the milk and sugar and offer them separately.
Basic Black Chai.
- 1½ cups cold water
• One 2-inch piece cinnamon stick, broken
• 2 heaping teaspoons black tea
• Seed of 3 cardamom pods
• One ¼-inch-thick slice fresh ginger
• 3 whole cloves
• 2 black peppercorns
• ¼ to ½ cup milk
• 1 to 2 tablespoons sugar
- Bring water to a boil in small saucepan. Add cinnamon, cover, remove from heat; steep 2 minutes. Return pan to heat; bring to a boil. Add tea, spices, milk and sugar; cover, and remove from heat. Steep 3 minutes.
- Pour mixture through fine wire-mesh strainer into warm teapot, discarding solids. Garnish with cinnamon sticks.
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