The designated brew person at the Los Feliz Coffee Bean bobbed his head and timed his stirring to a ska beat. ”Chai?“ He caught my eye and screwed the cardboard cup into its waffle sleeve. I nodded. ”This one‘s gonna be really slamming.“ His smile as he shoved the cup across the counter was 100 watts of foam-flecked bliss. Enlightenment came when I drained the cup and hit a layer of sludge the color of a Himalayan glacier. ”Slamming,“ in coffee-bar-ese, means a double shot of sweetener.
In a twist of secular karma, the Indian beverage sometimes redundantly known as ”chai tea“ has been reincarnated as a Californian. (A chalkboard in the Coffee Bean that assigns personalities to the various teas lists chai’s as ”Welcome to L.A. Let‘s do yoga.“) Like Chinese cha and Hindustani char, chai, from the Arabic, means simply tea, although the word is colored (or maybe infused) by the custom of the country drinking it. India’s customary brew is a blend of black tea, milk and spices. New World versions come hot (hybridized with Italian steam technology as chai latte) or iced and blended in beverage bars across the city, and packaged in cartons on the shelves at Trader Joe‘s.
Bucking the usual tide of colonization, the chai boom has spread from West Coast to East, riding a composite wave of coffeehouse culture, New Age exoticism, and a hectic society’s yen for something that simultaneously stimulates and soothes. Indeed, American chai — milky enough to merit the adjective pallid and mildly spiced to boot — might be a poster food for the pernicious effects of immigration on ethnic tradition, if only history didn‘t get in the way. But, while Buddhist legend and botanists agree that the tea plant originated in India before migrating to China, the actual practice of tea drinking was introduced to the subcontinent by the granddaddy of all coffeehouse chains, Britain’s East India Company.
Still, authenticity is a renewable resource, and it only takes a visit to Artesia‘s Pioneer Boulevard, L.A.’s largest concentration of markets and restaurants specializing in foods from the subcontinent, to be assured that the distinctive character of Indian chai is as far from its British forebears as it is from a chai latte.
The Bombay Chat House serves Western India‘s equivalent of high tea: a strong cup of chai accompanied by bright-colored cakes and savory fried snacks. Contrary to English-speaking expectations, however, the restaurant’s name does not refer to the accompanying conversation. ”Chat,“ the older of the two men behind the counter explains, is a mixture, ”you know, a little sweet, a little spice.“ In fact, the menu‘s seven different chats are free-for-alls of puffed grains, chopped vegetables and crunchy chickpea-flour noodles (sev), laced with bright-red and -green chutneys.
A bracing, medium-brown brew served in a Styrofoam cup, Chai at the Chat House is spicy but unsweetened (sugar is on the table). Its most distinguishing feature is a flavor something like condensed milk’s, creamy but a little too well-preserved. No, the younger of the two countermen explains, they use whole milk. ”One-half milk to one-half water is normal,“ the older man adds. The milk goes in with the crushed spices, ”cardamom, cloves and a couple of others,“ after the tea has boiled about 10 minutes. But then, they say, you have to boil the tea again, maybe 10 minutes more with the milk in it — the secret, no doubt, of the canned taste.
Further chai secrets are revealed at Patel Brothers market, where they sell several brands of ”tea masala,“ small packages of ready-made spice mixtures for the hurried or uncertain. In addition to cardamom, ginger and cloves, Badshah‘s Kamal Tea Masala lists ”big“ cardamom (the black as opposed to the green variety), pepper root and curry leaves, all in powder form. Despite the extra ingredients, so the woman behind the cash register informs me, Badshah’s is considered mild. For a spicier chai, I should try Laxmi‘s masala, whose principal ingredient is black pepper.
Perhaps the best chai advice comes from the proprietor of India Sweets and Spices, where a dozen different brands of loose black tea are displayed, including several strengths of Lipton. He recommends Tea India, grown in Assam, the hilly region famous for its tea plantations bordering Burma and Bangladesh, and you know you’re among serious sippers when the smallest package available is the 1-pound sack.
”You can add the milk when it‘s on the gas or after,“ he assures me. As for spices, ”Just cardamom. That’s all you need. And a little fresh ginger, chopped up.“ His smile, like the Coffee Bean counterman‘s, reminds me that if tea taking, East or West, is no longer the gracious tradition it once was, it can still encompass aspects of the sublime.
Bombay Chat House, 18511 S. Pioneer Blvd., Artesia; (562) 809-3141. Patel Brothers, 18636 S. Pioneer Blvd., Artesia; (562) 402-2953. India Sweets and Spices, 18181 S. Pioneer Blvd., Artesia; (562) 809-3191.