First, define your “cup”, be it a coffee mug, a ceramic teacup, a styrofoam glass, whatever. A good rule of thumb is three tea bags per “cup”, which might seem excessive but actually works out just fine because we will use one cup of water and one cup of milk per “cup” of chai. Chai is best shared.
So, find a small saucepan or pot, pour in 1 cup water and 1 cup milk. Add three tea bags; any type will do, because frankly you won’t be able to tell the difference between Darjeeling or Earl Gray or whatever after you’re done with this recipe. This ain’t Arthur Dent’s cup of tea.
Incidentally, by tea, I don’t mean that herbal nonsense. No mangos or other fruity concoctions; just tea. Dried leaves. The kind that England plundered India for. Do you honestly imagine that the Viceroy suffered through sweltering Indian summers, sitting supremely bored on the white porch of the cricket club overlooking a vast swath of green lawn on which legions of sullen locals ran about in as best an approximation of cricket as can be managed in 110 F heat, just for glorified lemon water? Did he put up with his wife’s incessant demands for the latest English fashions, which were particularly challenging to meet given that by the time the silly dresses actually got there they were already out of date with the London scene and probably full of cinch bugs nestling down in the chiffon besides, all for a orange rinds? I think not.
OK, anyway, milk, water, and tea bags in a pot. But there’s still something missing. Now, you are either well-prepared and have cardamom seeds (or as they are better known, elaichi) or you do not. If the latter, you might as well give up; feed the milk and water mixture to a neighborhood cat or something. You can still salvage the tea bags, stick them in a cup of water and nuke it in the microwave, you’ll end up with something loosely akin to tea, sort of the dirty ragamuffin cousin of tea. Arthur Dent wouldn’t touch that stuff with a ten foot pole, but your tastes are hardly as refined; after all you didn’t have elaichi handy, did you?
Actually, it is conceivable that you have run out of elaichi, in which case its absence is understandable and actually proves your good taste. Or maybe you really are an elaichi virgin, in which case I sort of envy you. Chalo, let us live vicariously! You may proceed. Go get some elaichi, don’t feed the water/milk to the cat, don’t fire up the microwave.
Got em? good.
You’ll need two elaichi seeds. Crack them lightly, without fully shelling them. You can do this either by squeezing them with your thumb perpendicular to the shell’s seam, or by squeezing the seed with your teeth. drop them into the pot, and turn on the gas.
You don’t have a gas stove? OK, that’s not a fatal flaw. But you might want to skip over this paragraph. At any rate the thing about gas stoves is that the flame either heats the pot, or it heats the air. If the diameter of the flame exceeds the diameter of the pot, you’re not actually heating the pot any faster. You can’t heat the sides of the pot, only the bottom. So turn the flame down until it’s just barely smaller than the pot and stop wasting gas. It’s a matter of national security.
Now, here’s the thing about heating the chai – you’re not just boiling water, you’re also heating milk. Milk doesn’t really appreciate this. What will happen is that the milk will boil over, and basically try to escape. It’s almost kind of worth it to watch this happen unfettered, but that would be tantamount to wasting food, so vigilance is required. Yes, you actually have to watch the pot until it boils. Thankfully, aphorisms are always wrong.
When the milk begins to make its escape, what you need to do is lower the gas. If you’re not cooking with gas, then you can simulate this by just moving the pot off the burner. Turning the heat down on the burner might not be a quick enough. You could get clever and have a second burner at half/quarter heat, and just move the pot rather than holding it aloft. Actually, that’s better. Do that. Be clever. This requires twice as many burners, but that’s the price you pay. Actually you’re also paying more in electricity costs; gas stoves are cheaper per BTU or whatever. Remember that next time your lease expires or you go appliance shopping.
Here’s where it gets tricky.
You see, you want to simmer the chai, but you don’t want it to boil over, so you need to find the right heat level such that the chai is boiling contentedly, vigorously. The tea bags should be dancing around, the elaichi should be surfing the waves. But the milk in the chai should not be even thinking about considering letting the tiniest thought about escaping cross its mind. Attaining this magic heat level is essentially a form of Zen.
Stay in Zen for about 5 minutes. Then pour. This, my friend, is chai. If you’re a barbarian, you might consider adding sugar. But that’s up to you.