Sep 29, 2009

Brewing Memories

Given the amount of tea Indian families consume, the ubiquitous chai shakkar ke dabbe (covered jars of tea leaves and sugar) hold a special place in every Indian kitchen. Typically, the tea jar is smaller than the sugar jar, probably because in preparing tea, the amount of sugar used is more than that of the tea leaves. For the ancient Indian cuisine, tea is a relatively new phenomenon, introduced about 200 years ago by the British. That by itself should make the tea making process an heirloom recipe, if it weren’t for the Chinese drinking it thousands of years before that. By that standard, we are merely toddlers chugging tea first thing in the morning and some every few hours after that.

Making tea, like thousands of other Indian recipes, is unique to every household and every chai dhabba
(roadside tea stall) that dots the busy cross streets and highways of India. What makes the tea unique is the blend of tea leaves, the amount of sugar, water and milk used, not to mention how long it is boiled to bring out the color of the tea leaves. If that does not give enough permutations and combinations of tea to come up with, cardamom, ginger or a blend of spices (chai masala) is sometimes used to give the chai a kick.

Tea is offered to every guest as a courtesy and served with another ubiquitous cookie – The Parle G or Glucose biscuits.

In the dhabbas, one can buy khari (a savory puff pastry cookie), aloo bonda (potato dumplings, dipped in chickpea batter and deep fried) or samosas. The bhabbawallas know the art of stretching/ boiling their tea leaves to the maximum. The leaves are usually tied in a linen or cotton cloth and immersed, bouquet style, in the milk, water and sugar solution boiling in a big aluminum pot.


Photo Courtsey: Jhinuk Chowdhary, a talented photographer and one of our good friends. On his recent India trip he took this picture of a lady selling tea in Kolkatta.

Growing up, I would watch my aaji (maternal grandmother) make tea every few hours. Her lidded jars of tea and sugar are made of brass and were a permanent fixture above the ledge of her gas stove. She always kept them polished and even as a kid I loved the two fat little jars, presiding over my aaji’s tiny little kitchen, sniffing the aromas of her simple cooking and my grandfather’s occasional mutton curry.


Her four daughters, including my mother, with their families, live in the same city and close enough to visit almost every day. As a result my grandparents have always had a steady flow of uncles, aunts and cousins, who come over to visit if they are in the vicinity. Nowadays, one of my aunts or cousins will put the tea on the stove to boil. But for the longest time I can remember, my aaji liked to make tea her way.

She would pour some water in a pot and put it on the stove to boil. She carefully measured some sugar to add to the water. A little bit of milk was put in a small pan and heated up on the smaller burner. When the sugar had all but dissolved and the water was about to come to a boil, she measured the tea leaves and threw them in the water. A little boiling later, the heat was turned off and the pot covered with a plate. This helped the tea leaves seep in the hot water and release their flavor. When the leaves had settled to the bottom of the pan, warm milk was added to the now dark water, the concoction strained with a sieve and poured into china tea cups and saucers. It was accompanied by Marie biscuits, which are a crispier, sweeter, round version of Graham Crackers.

My entry for Jugalbandi's Click: Heirloom Event

In all of my thirty something years, my aaji has been a major influence on me. My cousin and I lived with her as a five year old for a couple of years and though I do not have a lot of clear memories, one stands out the most. We were not allowed to play outside after sunset. My cousin and I had to wash up and then perched on three legged stools, in front of her little pooja corner, we recited our evening prayers and repeated the multiplication tables.

As I grew older, I learnt that she and her two sisters had lost their parents at an early age and had been brought up by an unmarried maternal uncle and a strict grandfather. She managed to graduate in an age when women were lucky to study past eighth grade. She eloped with my grandfather because his family opposed the union and managed to earn a master’s degree while taking care of two girls and pregnant with another. She was a high school English language teacher for 40 years before retiring at the age of 70.

In the three decades, I have been fortunate enough to know her, she has not changed much. Since moving to the US, I get to visit her every two years and each time she looks older and frailer but her spirit is as strong as ever. She does yoga and pranayam (breathing exercises) every morning, still cooks twice a day, goes for a walk and travels once in a while. Her cooking is as good as it was when I used to live with her and her sweet and sour varan (dal or lentil soup) and batata rassa (potatoes in onion gravy) taste the same as it did when I was growing up.

Her brass tea and sugar pots have been another constant in her kitchen. For the first time this year I did not see them by her gas stove. She had put them away for a pair of shiny, steel ones. But on asking, she graciously passed them on to me. All banged up and dented with years of use, with the original knobs on the lid missing, I still cherish them. They have travelled thousands of miles to occupy a permanent place on my kitchen counter, next to my stove, smelling the aromas of my cooking. Through them I draw on my aaji's gentle strength and her love for her family.

Sending the sweet and strong nostaligia of my aaji's pots to Manisha's IFR: Memories.

23 comments:

  1. What a wonderful write up! Enjoyed going through it.

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  2. Those ubiquitous Parle G's are also heirloom, if you ask me! It's your aaji who shines through in this post. I love that she gave you these jars and that you actually use them!

    I like the third picture of the jars the most.

    And thank you for this lovely post for IFR: Memories. Check your email in a bit. :-)

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  3. Nice write up Jaya!!! I became nostalgic after reading it. Even I have old copper water heater (Pani tapvaycha bamb) of my aaji with me. I miss my 'Mai aaji' like anything :(

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  4. Once again loved the post, you have got lovely writing skills.
    I loved the fourth pic with the open sugar pot.

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  5. Probably my favorite post so far in my short time 'knowing you'. What pictures and scents you created with your words and I felt transported....thanks for sharing. Loved the 'journey back home' from your post today. And you know, it kinda made me feel/see a part of you I hadn't before....can't put it into words....hmmmm....do you know what I mean?

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  6. Lovely post. So well written. The first picture and the third from the bottom are the best.

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  7. Lovely post Jaya!Enjoyed the ride back to India and the stalls.Marie and Parle G have to be my favs.We get lot of cookies here but their simplicity accompanied by the taste is just out of this world I think!I did not know the tea jar is smaller than the sugar jar.Never noticed it perhaps bcuz my parents were more of coffee drinkers.I am the one who adores tea!

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  8. Hi Jaya, such a lovely post. I adore heirloom anything and if it's brass it adds so much character to a room. I have my mom's 'very 70's' casseroles that have seen so many celebrations, I wish they could talk. Now you have just given me the idea to raid the kitchen in my native place :)
    Oh, and Suman Lad sounds very very much like someone my mom or dad know. I will ask around and we can do the 7 degrees. Did that with Manisha and found a distant connection!

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  9. the frills and thrills of chai.
    great memories and nicely depicted
    Sou.Suman Lad? was that right?

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  10. Very well written post Jaya. I can relate to so many things here. I used to love the tea that my Aaji used to prepare and would indulge with the Khari biscuits. My Ajoba used to bring them from nearby Jogeshwari station. However oddly enough I have never seen those dabbas be it at my Ajji's house or any other relatives in Bombay. Maybe I was not paying attention :-)

    Your write up about your Ajji is very inspirational. I am sure a guiding light and source of strength when in need.

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  11. Oh, forgot to mention I liked the 5th photo from the top.

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  12. Hi! Beautifully written, I can just imagine your aaji doing all activities. So true, that chaha cha and sakharecha dabba is a part of all maharashtrian families.
    My grandmom sent me recently my panjoba's aaram khurchi. I know how these things are so valuable in our lives. Every time I look at that chair I visualise my Panji sitting their.
    And yes, I liked the click with the open jar.
    I am reminded of my aaji who also has to do her one hour of yoga and her walk regularly at the age of 82, though she only makes her khichadi regularly.

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  13. First things first, before curiosity gets to you :-)
    Thanks for visiting and commenting for my blog post. I came here, straight from my blog. :-)

    What a coincidence !! Both of us have written posts about our grandmas on the same day ! A lovely and nostalgic post!! Glad to land here..

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  15. Liked the way you started off with some bare facts and warmed up to something personal. Great writing:-)

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  16. Hi Jaya,

    Lovely post. I studied in Pune and this post reminded me of the time when after class we used to go and have these small glasses of tea and vada paw(hope i wrote it correctly.

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  17. What a beautiful warm post.. i feel like readin git again & again.. it brings tears to my eyes thinking of all my good time I have had with my grandparents.. (none of them are here any more). you have the most beautiful gift from her:-) that talks of her life & what she is.

    beautiful pictures.

    As for my tea story, I can only have the Darjeeling tea (never grew up seeing boiled tea at home), with teensy bit of sugar & teensy bit of milk.. my hubby likes the boiled kind of desi tea:-) so we make 2 kinds at home!

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  18. Hey, what happened to my comment here? I left one about two hours ago! I said I loved the post and esp the picture with the name inscribed on it.

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  19. I really enjoyed reading that as I sipped my cup of, well, coffee...but it makes me want to have such golden memories of tea-making as these! You're a fine writer-

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  20. Loved reading your memories and the wonderful time you spent with your Aaji.

    I am not lucky enough to be pampered, both my grandparents passed away even before I knew them and I miss not having them around.

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  21. Why did I miss this ? This is such beautiful writing. Being a Tea and parle G lover, I so wish I could meat you ajji :)

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  22. Wow! I've read many of your blog posts, but this one is definitely the best! :)

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  23. What a beautiful post! I value all those old, banged up utensils from my grandmothers' kitchens because they have so many stories and so many memories in their bellies. I loved your ajji's chaha-saakhreche dabe!

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