India, land of exotic colours and spectacle has always drawn the creatively minded like a magnet. During the tail end of the last millennium, I was lucky enough to enjoy three years in this amazing country, my work as an artist-writer taking me from Kashmir and the Punjab to Rajasthan to Maharashtra and the enchanting worlds of Southern India.

My love affair with spicy Chai Latte – the national drink of India, began on my first Indian train trip from Bombay to Delhi.  As the crowded train clacked out of the station, passengers were leaning out of the windows and buying little red clay cups of some steaming hot beverage from vendors running alongside the moving train.  I looked at the beautifully rounded little cup that nestled in the palm of my hand – my first souvenir. I imagined it on my desk back home.  I was totally enchanted by the fragrant charm of the aromatics.  As I drank the hot, sweet, Masala Chai (Spiced Tea) I felt a lovely glowing tingle, soothing and relaxing. I was hooked!

So began my interest in this surprising beverage, and the discovery that almost every household in India has its own preferred chai recipe. Street chai and Railway chai are the most basic recipes, generally featuring the cheaper spices.  Better off households usually tend to go for certain of the costlier spices… and the really rich are fond of adding the gold of spices – saffron.  Since ancient times, Indian families have used spices for preservative and medicinal purposes.  The aroma and subtly pungent taste have a wondrously reviving and comforting effect… especially in cold weather.  During the hot months, chai is equally effective as a cooling agent as it activates the body’s own cooling system.

Spices are powerful antioxidants that protect the cells from damage. Many are anti-bacterial too, helping to fight free radicals and boost immunity.  Checking my Indian diaries, I find 312 recipes…from chai-wallahs (street sellers) to nuns, mothers of large families, boatmen, businessmen, people waiting for often-delayed trains, hairdressers, and friends.  But my prize recipe comes from a palace chef who was once one of the chefs employed by the princely descendants of a famous Nawab who liked his chai just the way we drink it today as Pukka Pure Pukka Chai.

/Dee Swift