Chai Alchemy and Medicinal Art

Tea-making and Creative Mindfulness

I used to be a hard-core coffee drinker, the stronger the better, cream no sugar. My favorite variety was a dark, spicy Indonesian blend, which required regular visits to my local barista to restock.

Then, (rapid scene change) I got diagnosed with cancer. Boom! Hel-lo! Don’t worry, coffee lovers — the cancer was the result of a genetic glitch, not the coffee. I spent the next three months in a cancer crash course with hands-on lessons in chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. Thankfully, I passed with flying colors.

I recovered, but my body was a little bit different. I had tingling sensations in my extremities, my legs were weak as noodles, and I completely lost my taste for my beloved morning beverage. Even sugar didn’t help. Though the flavor had become repulsive to me, I really missed the ritual of smelling the beans, grinding them, measuring the grounds carefully into the cone, and waiting for the morning’s magic to finish brewing.

Vicariously enjoying the smells in a local coffee shop while waiting for a friend to get her Latte, I discovered my new morning drink: Chai. Sometimes it’s called “Chai Tea” but that literally means “tea tea.” What I fell in love with is properly called “Masala Chai” which means “spiced tea.” After spending way too many dollars buying barista-made Spiced Chai’s, I knew I had to figure out how to make it myself.

First I had to learn the basic ingredients. The flavor profile is essentially 5 readily available spices: cinnamon, cloves, green cardamom, ginger, and star anise. Luckily for me I live near an Indian spice shop that sells these ingredients in bulk for a good price.

Around the time I was learning about chai spices and their preparation, I was met with another challenge. Well, we all were: Covid and quarantine, giving me two more good reasons to learn how to make my own masala chai.

The act of handling ingredients, regarding them closely, and preparing them carefully was also a benefit. While making my own tea took longer than making coffee, the process put me into a peaceful, patient, and focused state of mind. Though I was anxious about Covid and fearful about the future, looking at and appreciating the beauty of each individual ingredient kept me focused on the present.

Measuring, boiling, steeping, selecting the mug, careful pouring, and adding the cream and honey were all parts of the calming ritual. Next, a moment to savor the act of breathing as one enjoys the aroma and dancing tendrils of steam while waiting for the mug to become cool enough for the first sip. The whole activity from start to finish is a meditation on patience, acceptance and appreciation. This daily repetition helped me through many periods during quarantine when I felt like crumbling.

By now you’re probably wondering how to make this wonderful mindfulness alchemy that I have worked on for a year, right? First, let me say that any recipe is a starting point to your own personal taste. I am very spice forward so I add a lot, you may want just a hint, so let your palate be your guide. As I mentioned, I liked STRONG coffee, no translucent tea was going to cut it for me. So, the first thing on my to-do list was finding a burly black tea.

There are probably as many types of black tea as there are tastebuds. I tried commercial tea bags, some were good, but I had to use 2 or 3 per serving to approximate the caffeine and richness of coffee. After researching different black teas (Assam and Darjeeling are the most traditional) I found a few excellent choices online. Here is one. If you are not a caffeine lover, you can substitute with naturally caffeine-free Rooibos.

Next, the spices. I wanted a tea with more body and richness. To get this I added turmeric and cocoa powder to my ingredients list. Also, turmeric is supposed to be helpful for inflammations, but only when paired with pepper, so I added black pepper, too. The other spices are star anise, green cardamom, ginger, cloves, and cinnamon. One more thing I add is black cardamom, which has a totally different flavor profile than the green variety. Greens are harvested earlier and have a light, zesty flavor, while the black pods are harvested later, then fire dried, which gives them a smokey, earthy flavor. The two together create complex yet harmonious high and low notes.

The measurements are very loose. Per two-mug serving, I use 2 star anise, 4 green cardamom pods, 6–7 cloves, 1 black cardamom pod, ½ tsp (or more) ginger, ¼ to ½ tsp cocoa, ¾ tsp turmeric, 1/8 tsp black pepper, 1 stick cinnamon. Put the above in a pot with about 3C water, bring to a boil, then add 1 heaping TB loose black tea. My final secret ingredient: ½ tsp of my favorite coffee. (Yes, even though we broke up we are still friends!)

Masala Chai DIY Ingredients
I add a wee bit of coffee because old habits die hard.

To strain, I use a common wire mesh sink strainer. Very simple, available for cheap at most grocery stores, fits perfectly over mugs without spilling, and is “large-capacity” for the solids.

To top it off I use evaporated milk, but oat milk is good too, and honey.

And that’s my recipe for DIY Mindful Masala Chai!

I can’t claim this tea has curative powers, but the ritual of making it every morning starts my studio time off with a positive, meditative and satisfying process which is the best way to begin any creative day.

Though I haven’t made any paintings specifically about tea, here are a few I created that were inspired by medicinal and native plants.

Happy Brewing 🌱 ☕️!

©sarahstoneart 2021

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Painter, Habitat Gardener, Shelter Dog Addict & L.A. Anecdotalist, writing about Life, Nature & Art. IG@sarahstoneart