As soon as I pull into the Starbucks drive-thru and rattle off the words, "Chai tea latte," the guilt seeps into my bones. This isn't chai. It is quick. It is made with a pre-made liquid combined with warm milk. Don't get me wrong; I still enjoy this drink, but it isn't the chai I encountered in my Texas home, and certainly not on the streets of India.
Traditional chai isn't meant to be rushed, either in the making or in the drinking. As a young girl, the morning alarm clock wasn't what we heard, but what we smelled. The entire house filled with the whispers of cardamom, whole black peppercorn, cinnamon, and of course, the brewing of the dark brown loose chai. The medley of these ingredients simmered and percolated in the entire house. Once this combination rose to the surface, my mother would gently add milk and let it linger on the stove for a few more minutes. A mini sieve was placed into the tea cup, and then the light brown elixir was filtered through.
The teacups landed on our table and as my parents sipped their Indian tea, they read the Dallas Morning News, listened to Bollywood music on the radio, and spoke in the native tongue of Gujarati. They wouldn't leave the table until the last sip of tea was gone. I witnessed this chai experience throughout my childhood not only in my parents' home, but when we visited India as well. In India, chai is everywhere. From street vendors in the markets to fancy restaurants in the city and especially at the stops at the train station, I'd watch as various versions of masala chai would be offered to eager people wanting to recapture the nostalgia of that conversation they had with their grandmother in the kitchen last week or the shared laugh among friends during a late night.
After seven years in Phoenix, I wanted to know whether it was possible to re-create history and find the chai of my childhood. In the last year, Om Bistro has become a favorite for my family, especially when I am craving comfort food from my youth. When ordering the chai, I didn't know what to expect, but I held on to the hope that they would deliver a balm to my earlier guilt. I knew it was a good sign when I requested chai and the lady behind the counter said, "Well, it will take some time. It usually takes more than 15 minutes to make."
My heart raced. Could this be it? Would I be able to relive the nostalgic days of India in a Phoenix strip mall?
I devoured my food, then it was finally time to put the chai to the test. Indian chai is never about presentation, and the Styrofoam cup wasn't a surprise. I've had chai this way before. The wafts of chai moved beneath my nose and I immediately thought, "This is it. This is the same aroma I've encountered before. In my childhood home. On the streets of India."
I took a tentative sip because the chai was warm, but immediately, the spice of the black peppercorn and cardamon hit my tongue. Within seconds, ginger revealed itself along with the hearty flavor of the chai.
A 10-minute drive and $2.49 later, I was transported back home, the earlier ambivalence a faint memory with one sip of this authentic Indian chai.
18631 North 19th Avenue
Tuesday-Thursday: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-9:30 p.m.
Friday: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-10 p.m.
Saturday: 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-10 p.m.
Sunday: 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-9:30 p.m.