Category Archives: chennai

Jacob Two Two and the Cup of Tea

It’s been almost five months since I’ve been in Asia, and I find myself thinking about it often. Sometimes I look at pictures and am reminded about an aspect of the trip, and sometimes a sound or smell will pull me back to a place in Mumbai or a hillside in Panauti. A few days ago, while on the bus going through Osborne Village, there was a traffic jam and suddenly the air was filled with a cacophony of car horns and I was instantly transported to Chennai. I wanted to grab the wheel of the bus and go down the wrong side of the road while looking back at the passengers and asking if they wanted to go shopping or maybe go to the beach. I think I was the only one smiling on the bus.

But there is one aspect of India and Nepal that I can recreate, to a fairly accurate facsimile, here in Canada. I can make the food… or at least attempt to.

I’ve been experimenting over the last few months with a variety of recipes with some success (and a few dismal failures). I’ve gathered some from books, friends, and from all over the internet, then tried and modified until I found the closest thing to the dishes I remember from over seas. This entry will be the first of my findings that I will share.

There is a western misconception, perpetuated by the big western coffee houses, that chai is a flavour. Chai actually just means tea, and the word masala means spices, spiced, or spice mixture. So the next time you are in a Starbucks and you ask for a spiced masala chai tea, you are actually asking for a spiced spiced tea tea, and you should probably watch out for the Hooded Fang.

Another misnomer is that masala is a set mixture of spices and chai is a type of tea, therefore all masala chai will be the same. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Every restaurant, vendor stand, and wallah had a different recipe, most good, some fantastic. My favourites include the Ananda Cafe and Guest House blend in Panauti Nepal (made by the delightful wife of the proprietor), the Hotel Central Tower in Chennai, and the Hotel Hari-Piorko in New Delhi.

I ended up drinking a LOT of chai when I was over there, partially because it was boiled and fairly safe, but mostly because it was yummy! Even the small paper cups from the chaiwallahs on the Indian trains or chowpatty beach in Mumbai were tasty.

However, there was one cup of tea that I had in Haridwar that I will never forget, it came at the end of my first day after the evening aarti and a delightful day of dunking in the Ganges and mingling with the sadhus at the ghats. On the way back to my hotel I stopped in at a ramshackle stand that had a fresh batch of samosa frying in oil and I ordered a masala chai, and watched the cook make it.


He started with COLD water (a bottle of Aquafina in this case) and threw in a handful of whole spices and then a spoon full of tea leaves. Then he brought the whole thing to a rolling boil and let it bubble for about 5 minutes. Then he added some honey and milk, strained it into a glass, and served it.

This technique is very different than the steeping we do in the west where we boil the water first and then let a perforated bag filled with lawn clippings, sawdust, and a single tiny tea leaf, sit in the water for ten minutes (I’m looking at you Tetley).

Now, I’m not sure whether it was the actual taste of that Haridwar chai, or the surroundings and circumstances that were a part of the day that I had it, but it was one of the best cups of tea I have ever had… and of course I wasn’t watching close enough to see which spices or kind of tea he used to make it… so I’ve been trying to recreate it ever since.

And with a combination of recipes, I think I’ve found a very close rendition:

Masala Milk Chai inspired by the Ghats of Haridwar


3 whole star anise seeds (alternatively 1/2 tbsp of fennel seed)
3 green cardamom pods
6 cloves
1 cinnamon stick broken up
1/4″ fresh ginger root, sliced thin
1/4 tsp whole black pepper corns (about 10)
1 bay leaf
3 1/2 cups COLD water
1 tbsp black tea
1-2 tbsp honey or brown sugar (2 is more authentic, but might be too sweet for some)
1/2 cup milk

Use whole spice wherever you can, if you need to use a ground alternative, you should have a coffee filter handy for straining, otherwise you’ll get a strange sludge at the bottom of your final cup.


Also try to use a loose Indian black tea like Darjeeling or Assam. Right now I’m using a Nepalese black tea that I found at an Asian market here in Winnipeg, and it really lends itself to this recipe. I’ve since found out that David’s Tea carries a black Nepal tea too.



In a pot, pour in water, spices, and tea, leaving the sweetener and milk aside.


Bring to a rolling boil and let it bubble away for 5 minutes

Add the sugar or honey first, and then immediately add the milk and let it simmer for 2 or 3 minutes more. (The reason you add the sugar first is that it stops the boil momentarily so when you add the milk there is less chance of curdling. Also, the lower the fat content of the milk, the less chance of curdling.)


If you used whole spices, strain mixture through a sieve or colander into cups. If you used ground spices, put a basket coffee filter in your strainer.


This recipe makes 2 latte sized cups (pictured), or 4 tea cups or mugs worth.


When ever I make this recipe, I sit back and watch this video to make the experience complete.



It’s either that or pour the mixture into dixie cups while straddling my couch and yelling “All aboard! Next stop Agra! Get your Chai and Chaat!”… but that might confuse the cats…

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Dammit Jim, I’m a doctor, not a travel agent.

Mumbai, Maharashtra, India.

When I bring up images of Mumbai (Bombay) in my head, I think of gangsters and movie stars mingling with beggars and pickpockets, knee deep in the muck of the slums. Mumbai is India’s most populace city at 25 million (add the surrounding areas to that and it jumps to 40 million), so I was mentally preparing myself for crowds, smog and stink.

Puducherry was a fantastic seaside town of 200,000 people (650,000 if you add the surrounding metro, still small for India). An oasis of waves, sun, good food, and warm people. It had become a base of operations to see some of the other parts of Tamil Nadu that I wanted to see, and it was such a source of relaxation that I ended up staying there for an extra five days. The town slogan for Puducherry is actually “Pondicherry, give time a rest”.


To go from that to the crowds and hectic lifestyle of Mumbai would surely be a culture shock, so I was thinking I had better be prepared.

I hired a car to take me to Chennai, and from there I was to take a flight to The Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai. The drive from Puducherry to Chennai gave a great look at the Indian Nation Highway system. I was expecting ill maintained roads with oxen carts and potholes littering the roads (like Nepal), but the 6 lane divided highway was smooth and efficient.


Once out of the sprawl of Villupuram Junction, the driver was able to maintain a cruising speed of 80km/hr and with the exception of a coffee stop at a roadside stand, he didn’t have to stop at all… Until the Chennai sprawl started. I had forgotten how dirty and noisy Chennai is, but I thought that this will be a good preparation for Mumbai which has 4 times as many people and is supposedly built on garbage.

The Chennai airport is reminiscent of an old run down bus station complete with dirty washrooms and dripping ceilings.


I boarded my plane and started to freak out about the possibilities of Mumbai. All the worst images from Slumdog Millionaire and that cheesy episode of Star Trek where they were on the grossly overpopulated planet and Kirk gets transported to an exact replica of the Enterprise to infect a girl with germs so that their race could get disease and start dying off, entered my mind. I had visions of getting off the plane into an impossibly dense crowd and being robbed and raped and being torn apart by the locals wearing my skin as a coat and my beard as a trophy.

As I hyperventilated exiting the plane, the same thing happened in the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai that happened at the Indira Gandhi Internaional Airport in New Delhi… There was nobody there…


The airport was vast, but surprisingly empty. I went to luggage carrousel 12 out of 2940, collected my bag with ease and without being hassled, and proceeded past the very nice man with the very big gun who stamped my luggage and then… SMILED AT ME.

I mean he actually smiled, a grin from ear to ear, a genuine sign of warmth, a “welcome to my city” kind of greeting that left me flabbergasted with an open mouth and the sound of “whaaaa?” emanating from my throat.

The very smiley man with the very nice gun then said “Sir? Is everything alright? If there is a problem that you are having, there is a medical clinic directly to your left that can help you with any of your needs”.

I assured him that I was alright, and smiled back at him, which produced a head bob and a wave.

I approached the Pre-Paid taxi counter to get a lift to my hotel in the Churchgate district of South Mumbai, which according to my e-edition of Lonely Planet India, was about 18km away. “OK, here we go” I thought, “This is where I’m going to get taken advantage of”. I was expecting to spend well over 1000 Irp for this ride since a cab from Chennai airport to my hotel was half the distance and cost 600 Irp and the one from the Train Station to my hotel in Puducherry cost 300 Irp and went all of 800 meters (that one was my own damned fault for not looking at the scale of my map close enough).

The gentleman behind the counter smiled at me and asked me where I was going, and then quoted me 240Irp for a non A/C cab. I replied “No, I said I wanted to go to Churchgate district… C h u r c h g a t e”.

“Yes sir, 240 rupees” he said while still smiling.

I paid him, and he asked if I knew where to go, and then pointed to the very well marked signs that formed into 5 queues: Limo, Taxi A/C, Taxi Non A/C, Cool Cab, Rental Car.

I exited the airport through the doors into a very orderly and calm pickup point.

I entered the very fast moving queue for Non A/C and a man with a smile put my bag into the car with the smiling driver who looked at the taxi chit and took me on my way…

The time from exiting my plane to getting into a cab was under 15 minutes and I didn’t get harassed once. Inside or outside the airport.

The streets of Mumbai are unlike any of the streets of the other cities I have been to so far in India. Quieter and cleaner than Chennai, less busy than Bangalore, not as smelly as Thiruvannamala, not as granola as Auroville (I think Woodstock was less granola than Auroville), and less smoggy than New Delhi… It seems that Mumbai has all of the aspects of India, but nothing that is extreme. The other thing that stands out is the complete lack of autorickshaws, most of the taxis here are Hindustani Motors Ambassadors.


I suppose that if this had been my first stop on the trip, I would have been terrified of the traffic and crowds and noise, but I’ve seen far worse in other parts of India (and because my first full stop was Kathmandu, I don’t think any city will scare me ever again), so Mumbai is just…. Well… anticlimactic.

The driver finds the hotel very easily, and he carries my bag to the front of the hotel, and I hand him a tip of 50 rupee. I get a head bob and smile while he says “No sir, my gratuity is included in the price sir, thank you but I must refuse”.

I think you could have flown an 747 into my mouth it was so agape at this statement. I have never, ever had a taxi driver refuse a tip. Here, in Canada, in the states, Europe, ANYWHERE! I am stunned.

“Is everything alright sir? There is a medical facility right down the street if you would like me to take you there.”

The hotel I choose is a 3 star hotel called the Chateau Windsor that has rooms like the Grand McGrath in Bangalore but smaller. It’s very clean and quiet, although the view from the balcony isn’t that great.


But I had my wonderful view in Pondy, and I’m very close to the beach and some major sites and shopping districts of Mumbai, and now that I’m over my Western prejudice about this city, I’m ready to explore having learned my lesson…



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