Not to be vain and all, but the ginger chai I made for myself at home had come to be acknowledged as being quite sensational by those who had tasted it. Naturally, the clamour arose for me to make tea for others as well. A pleasure it would have been—but for some reason I could only make a single cup at a time. Any more, and the milk would mysteriously break into clumps, as if possessed by a spirit whose cup of tea was clearly not generosity. The same ingredients, the same vessel, the same process, but more than a certain quantity: disaster.

As you can imagine, repeated hero-to-zero plunges of this sort are enough to break a man. In desperation, I turned to science. Which may not have the answers to everything, but did not disappoint in the dozens of research papers relevant to the making of ginger chai. Now I am the happy purveyor of quality ginger chai to one and all, and I got there via learning how to make—of all things—a Cantonese dessert.

Going back in time, my most vivid memories of chai are at Manoj’s shack outside the Mumbai campus I lived in for eight years. Sitting there dazed at dawn after nights awake pretending to work, I learnt several things. That a sizeable population of the city worked odd hours and that they worked very hard. That a quick chai served not only as refreshment but also as sustenance, keeping people going until they found the time, opportunity or money for something more substantial. No surprise then that tea is most widely consumed in India with plenty of milk and sugar—a tea-flavoured energy drink. It combines well with flaky khari biscuits and cheap sponge cakes to create the illusion of satiety. It soothes the throat when alternated with a cigarette or beedi. And so they’d come, these weary men, to rest on the blue benches of Manoj’s shack and sip from tiny cups before going out again to do battle with the world.

By the time I moved from Mumbai I had turned into a chai snob. I liked enough milk to give it some body so it all went down in a warm stately procession, but not so much milk as to make it flabby. The tea’s bitter not too pronounced or absent, the ginger playing counterpoint without overwhelming it. The only way then to get it right was to make it myself.

The ideal chai is like the pause it offers from the world—a still, composed liquid obtained from a terrible fray involving its ingredients. I followed my best approximation of what I had seen Manoj and other tea-tenders do: throw milk, water, ginger beaten to pulp in a pestle, tea leaves and sugar into a vessel with a handle, then let them to fight it out on a flame, swirling to prevent it all from boiling over. The proportions settled with time and soon I was making reliably satisfying chai. Until, that is, I tried to make more than a single cup and had the whole thing separate unhappily into tea whey and nascent tea paneer. I knew it had something to do with the ginger, but what changed with the quantity? How could the same process lead to such different results? A few more failures and the prospect of making any quantity of tea became imbued with dread.

 

[bctt tweet=”The ideal chai is like the pause it offers from the world—a still, composed liquid obtained from a terrible fray involving its ingredients.”]

 

As we do these days with our deepest fears and insecurities, I took the matter to the internet. There were many others interested in the strange ways of milk in the presence of ginger. I found blog posts and articles, earnest questions on forums, clarifications sought in comments sections. But what I didn’t expect was that most of them were trying to curdle milk with ginger and failing in the process.

And so I discovered the Cantonese preparation of sweet ginger curd. It has only three ingredients, milk, sugar and ginger. And it is absurdly simple to make: pour hot sweetened milk into ginger juice. That’s it. It immediately sets into a light, silky custard-like gel. Or, it is supposed to. To go by its online reputation, it’s as elusive as it is simple.

Hindi Chini bhai bhai. It turns out that the key to success with both ginger chai and ginger curd lies in the behavior of enzymes present in ginger that break down proteins in milk and make it clot. Scientific literature on the subject—a particular area of interest is in using ginger-based enzymes instead of rennet for making cheeses—shows that the enzymes are most effective as milk-clotting agents above 60 C, but are neutralized when heated above 70 C.

All those failed ginger curd aspirants were probably heating their milk beyond 70 C, ensuring that the ginger could do nothing. And my ginger chai was meeting a sad end when the milk passed through that temperature range. It happened only above a certain quantity because my process was so unvarying. I’d keep the milk and water mixture on the stove, then go break a knob of ginger, wash it, pound it, giving the milk enough time to be over 70 C when the ginger actually hit it. When I was making chai in larger quantities, the milk wouldn’t be as hot in the same time period and consequently disintegrate when the enzymes kicked in.

Now I do one of two things: boil ginger in water before adding milk or, make sure that the milk-water mixture is hot enough to sizzle against the side of the vessel before throwing in the ginger. The former gives the chai a brash ginger burn, the latter a mellow glow. And I’ve learnt to make ginger curd on purpose while staring at a cooking thermometer. It’s quite something.

PS: An excellent guide to making ginger curd, with the science of it explained can be found here.

 

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4 Comments

  1. Interesting article Srinath. I have had similar experiences with chai making. Another interesting aspect of chai making is that the sweetness varies depending on when during the process you add sugar.

  2. Haha, I told my sister it was her anxiety that curdled it 😉

  3. Pingback: An Ode to Tea – Comfortably random

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