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 called “Lynch Syndrome,” 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 “vente”, 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 Chai latte’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 which sells these ingredients in bulk for a good price.
Around the time I was learning about these 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, looking at 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. Some call this “Mindfulness,” which is a new-agey word that simply means paying full attention while you are doing something. Though I was anxious about Covid and fearful about quarantine, I would bring my mind back to looking at and appreciating the beauty of each individual ingredient as I measured them. Then, boiling, steeping, selecting the mug, careful pouring, and adding the cream and honey. Followed by more waiting: enjoying the aroma and the dancing tendrils of steam while the tea cools enough to take 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 over the past year when I felt like I might emotionally crumble.
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, let your senses be your guide as to how much of anything you add. I am very spice forward so I add a lot, you may just want a hint, so follow your bliss. As I mentioned, I liked STRONG coffee, no see-through tea was going to cut it for me. So, first thing on my to-do list was find a stout 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 I found a few stellar choices at my local spice shop.
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 lovely high and low notes.
The measurements are very loose. I use about 5 star anise, 5 green cardamom pods, 6–7 cloves, 1–2 black cardamom pods, 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 TB loose black tea. My final secret ingredient: ½ tsp of my favorite coffee. (Yes, even though we broke up we’re still friends!)
To strain I use a wire mesh sink strainer. Very simple, available for cheap at grocery stores, fits perfectly over most mugs without spilling, and is “large capacity” for the solids.
To top it off I use evaporated milk, but oat milk is good to, 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. I haven’t made any paintings specifically inspired by tea, but here are a few I painted that were inspired by medicinal and native plants.
Thank you for reading!