Eliche, Ginger, and Black Pepper
My mom, Kamla-ji, wakes up at five every morning. I’ve learned to wake up around the same time without an alarm, to the orchestral sounds of early birds and clanging of metal buckets as she feeds our three cows.
Mom starts making breakfast at 7 and although she tells us to come down at 7:30, I make sure to sneak into the kitchen as soon as she turns on the kitchen stove.
I remember our first breakfast. I’d asked to cook with mom, but she had waved me out of the kitchen aggressively, motioning me to sit down and wait for the food. So I never asked again; the trick is to jump in and start helping before she could protest.
Today we had bread with butter and jelly for breakfast. Although there’s something different to eat every morning, chai is always there. Chai means tea in Hindi, pronounced similarly to how we say ‘trà’ in Vietnamese. Chai is hot, milky, and fragrant. I love the burning sensation on my fingertips every time I get to hold a cup of chai. I like holding the edge of it as close to my nose as possible, and let the heavenly smell of black tea, fresh cow milk, and spices stream in. It’s impossible to decipher what mixture of spices are in a cup of chai just from drinking it.
No matter how slowly you try to sip it, by the time the warmth of chai touches your tongue, all thoughts and calculations leave your mind and now the only thing you feel is the blossoming flavors moving down your throat.
When I asked mom what she put in her chai, I was surprised to find out there are only three spices: ginger, black pepper, and eliche.
I’d never heard of eliche before coming to India. As we waited for the water to boil, mom put it in my hand under the dim kitchen light before she crushed it with a small stone. Eliche looks like the small seeds of a mandarin, dried and ivory-colored. For a saucer-full of chai, mom used only a pinch of eliche and pepper. With quick hands, she sprinkled the grinded spices into the boiling tea and we watched it bubble in our little kitchen corner. The room was filled with a heavenly aroma, with steam rising fast into our little space.
Turning off the stove, mom strained the chai into a metal cup and again poured it in a bigger ceramic cup for me. She opened a fresh packet of biscuits, and motioned me to drink the chai we’d just made. Sipping hot chai with my knees drawn close to my chest on the smooth earth floor, I’d never felt more at peace.
In two days I am leaving Satoli and Kamla-ji’s kitchen. I wonder how many more cups of chai we will share together and how many more times I will but I will forever carry with me the secrets of her chai saucer, of ginger, pepper and eliche.