Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Chai Tea

I suppose it was the way she prepared chai which, in her hands, had become an art form. By the time I met her she had elevated the ability to combine the disparate ingredients into something arcane. In the presence of her preparation was like witnessing some ancient being trace its long-worn evolutionary lines, not as an act of conscience but something rote, embedded by now deep in the brain.

Making chai is existential and personal, but one of the secrets is to leave the tea in the boiling water long enough to get the flavor but not too long where it becomes bitter from excessive exposure to the tannins. And then there are the ingredients: some sweetener and some milk. These require a delicate mix that I could never master. My attempts came out too bitter, or too milky. Seeing this she would invariably need to take over, buzzing around the kitchen, humming softly to herself as she prepared the drink that would serve us well on a frostbitten evening. I don't need to tell you that it also served as a metaphor for her complex genius--an unruly mix, prepared at a boil, every sip savored slowly. Somewhere over time they had met, and now they were kindred.

One year I went down to a tiny shop on Cleveland Avenue and came away with a cast-iron tea kettle. I presented this to her in tribute. It was dark like coal, etched with Chinese dragons, and came with four matching cups. On evenings like this one I like to imagine that kettle, preparing tea for friends, presiding over a table set far away. Maybe they'll ask. "From an old friend," maybe she says. I have settled on acceptance. I can't prepare the tea, and that kettle is gone, and all that went with it. But I made my contribution to her craft and my life is far richer because of her fleeting presence.

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