Discover the modern South Asian ritual of making tea

Secret Obsessions is the new column for Atlas Obscura, in which we ask great people to take us down a rabbit hole. As told to Atlas Obscura editorial associate Sarah Dorn.

The fog was rolling in across the tea garden. When I looked out the window, I could see snow-capped mountains rising in the distance. The alpine air was fresh, fresh and cool – a sharp contrast to the thick and misty air of Kolkata, from which we traveled. Most of all, I remember how green it was. The tea plants seemed to stretch for miles and miles, as my brother and I played among the carefully planted rows. I’ve never seen so much greenery in India before.

I was eight years old then, and this was my first visit to my great-uncle’s tea garden in Darjeeling. My brother and I used to call him Candy Dado, our grandfather of candy. He always sneaked up on us little sweets and chips that he’d hide away.

In Darjeeling, India, 11,000 tons of tea are hand-picked each year. Bodyan Bardhan / Unsplash

One afternoon we were sitting on his porch and someone had just stirred a new pot of tea. We were drawn to a rich mixture of spices and tea. I remember tasting the milky, golden-brown drink, but I was very young. It was very bitter. It was only after a long time that I was able to add flair to the sensations and memories that the tea garden evokes.

Fast forward, 10 years later. I had just moved to Los Angeles. We had some family friends who live nearby in Thousand Oaks, and I stayed with them when I first moved there from Greensburg, Pennsylvania. They helped me find an apartment and escorted me around. Once I leave, I still visit often for lunch and spend a few hours. After every lunch, everyone started falling into a carb coma, so every day at 3:00 p.m., my uncle (we refer to our parents’ friends as aunts and uncles) would say, “Okay, it’s tea time.”

I was like, “I have to watch this.” And I said, “Oh my God! Teach me how to make tea!”

The Indian masala chai tradition really took off after the arrival of the British East India Company.
The Indian masala chai tradition really took off after the arrival of the British East India Company. IndiaPix / IndiaPicture / Getty Images

So I watched. He would boil some water and throw in the ground ginger, cinnamon and some tulsi leaves that my aunt had grown in the front yard. Obviously milk. He then adds sweetness later, depending on who is drinking it. There is no one way to make tea. Every Indian family has their own blend of spices, and their own way of putting these simple ingredients together to make something that can taste, smell and feel completely different from house to house, but still connect people together.

You can add a lot of different random things. You can make it your own. Lots of Indian moms, dads, aunts and uncles don’t use recipes at all. It’s about what you want it to taste. And that was the beginning of my obsession.

Now, as soon as I wake up, I start making tea. I tried a lot. I cook tea over low heat, wash my face, brush my teeth, and apply lotion and sunscreen. Then I come back to it, but I don’t always time it well.

Sometimes when I go back to the kitchen it’s already blown all over the stove. This still probably happens once a week.

When her schedule is too busy to make her own tea at home, Day opts for bagged tea and a few minutes of sleep.
When her schedule is too busy to make her own tea at home, Day opts for bagged tea and a few minutes of sleep. Chelsea Lauren/Shutterstock

I have such crazy work and a schedule where nothing is certain. But my tea, the certainty of it, and the ritual, really puts me in the shoes of a zen bean. It falls into my mind, and takes me away from things that are mostly out of my hands.

But what’s really exciting is that I’m going back to see my parents in Pennsylvania. They don’t make their own tea, so I make them for me every morning. I use tea from our family’s tea garden. It connects me to the generations I inherited. From the moment I set foot in Darjeeling and experienced the magical, almost surreal nature of that city, I immediately felt a connection. Even though I was very young, I knew it was a special place. And now, it all comes together – every morning, no matter where I am.

Sujata Day is an actor and director known for HBO Unsafe And her first feature film Intro pleaseNow streaming on Netflix.

Masala Chai in Sujata

sujata day

  • Total time: 25 minutes
  • Makes about two cups

Ingredients

  • 18 oz water
  • 1 tablespoon fresh ginger
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground star anise
  • Half a teaspoon of crushed cardamom
  • ½ teaspoon ground cloves
  • 3 fresh tulsi leaves
  • 1 tablespoon Darjeeling black tea* (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon honey, brown sugar, or your favorite sweetener (optional)
  • 4 ounces milk or milk substitute (optional)

instructions

  1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil.

  2. Grate fresh ginger (my secret weapon).

  3. Add ginger to the water with turmeric, cinnamon, tulsi leaves, anise, cardamom and cloves. (Note: I keep a mixture of these dry spices on hand.)

  4. Simmer for 10 minutes.

  5. Add tea. **

  6. Simmer for another 10 minutes. (Note: The pot will boil if you’re not careful, so try to keep an eye on it.)

  7. Strain the tea and spice mixture into a teapot (or any container you have on hand).

  8. Add your favorite sweetener as desired.

  9. Enjoy!

  10. If I’m feeling lonely, I’ll heat up some milk and throw it in there! But in general, I drink it every day without milk.

Gastro Obscura covers the world’s most amazing food and drinks.

Subscribe to our email, which is delivered twice a week.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *