“Hmph! What’s so unique about Mallus making tea? You Malayalis want to brand everything!”: I can almost hear my very reasonable friend Suvrata say this to me when I pitch the headline to her. Like her, even I detest the Malayali renaissance we see these days on social media.
We may be riding the crest of a Malayali wave. Emboldened by KK Shailaja’s brilliant handling of Kerala’s Covid situation and Fahadh Faasil’s movies finding an audience in non-Keralities, Malayalis are now left wondering: “Are we cool now?”
You see, Mallus never thought this day will come — A day when we will have some serious street cred like Punjus do.
This has led to an influx of Malayali influencers on social media, nostalgically exploring the quirks of Malludom. I scoff every time I see one of these videos.
Because this sudden love and pride for Malluness don’t sit well with me. I’ve seen non-residential Malayalis reject their identity because it was somehow embarrassing to them.
Some of my peers couldn’t string a sentence in Malayalam or be bothered to learn because it was uncool. In the 90s, many first-generation Mallu kids were admonished for speaking in Malayalam at home by their parents: “Speak in English!”
Anyway, sorry for the long rant. Let me not digress from the original intention of this article — tea making in the Malayali style.
Mallus and their tea
“Tea?” you may ask. “Isn’t kapi (coffee) your thing?”
Kerala has an abundance of both tea and coffee drinking culture. But in North Kerala, where I hail from, tea is more popular.
I won’t say things like: “Tea drinking is integral to the culture of Kerala,” or “Malayalis take their tea very seriously.” It’s not and they don’t. Now alcohol, that’s a different story.
Tea is mostly in the background of Mallu life. It’s there. Malayalis don’t acknowledge how important it is. That being said, they sure drink a lot of it.
In my maternal aunt’s home in Iritty, Kannur, tea is made and served 10 times a day on some days. No exaggeration.
The strainer and the tea pan are always on standby, never knowing when they have to spring up in action again.
Before you sound the caffeine alarm, tea in Kerala is markedly different. Only a smidgen of tea powder (not leaves) is used every time. The end result is a diluted, weak beverage, of which you can have 4-5 cups without going into a caffeine-induced frenzy.
Far from the 3:1 milk to water ratio of North Indian tea recipes, Malayali chai or chaaya roughly has a 1:2 ratio.
In Kerala, chai is also served cooled at a drinkable temperature, relieving people from the tedium of having to wait till it cools down naturally. The best part, in fact, is the cooling process.
It makes for great theatrics and is generally reserved for tea-making professionals in quaint tea shops called chaya kada. For if you are not careful, you could spill or worse burn yourself.
The tea is “cooled” by pouring it to and fro between two aluminum mugs. You may find restaurants and stalls selling “one-meter tea”, referring to the vertical distance between both the cups when the tea is poured.
More the distance, fluffier the froth. Frothier the tea, the better it tastes.
Although the idea is to appease impatient patrons on the go, there are some unintentional positive effects of the tea-pouring ritual.
As you sip the cooled tea, you can feel tiny bubbles forming and breaking on the surface of the beverage, releasing the scent of the tea. If you listen carefully, you’ll be serenaded by faint pop-pop sounds of the bubbles breaking.
The process also lends a different mouth-feel to tea, maybe due to air being incorporated into the beverage while pouring. I can’t explain it; It’s tastier than regular tea despite the frugality of major ingredients.
It engages your olfactory, gustatory and auditory senses simultaneously. Without further ado, here’s a recipe for tea Kerala style for a single serving. Hope you are as excited as I am.
How to make Kerala-style tea
Ingredients: (Measurements can be adjusted as per taste)
- 1/4 teaspoon of spice mix – dried ginger + clove + cardamom (optional)
- One knob of crushed and peeled ginger (also optional)
- 1 1/2 cup of water
- 1/2 cup of milk
- 1/2 -1 teaspoon tea leaves
In a saucepan, boil water and add a pinch of the spice mix. Crush a knob of ginger with a pestle, and add to the boiling concoction.
When the water is sufficiently hot and boiling, add the tea leaves or powder. Turn the flame down to a minimum.
Add milk gradually after 2 minutes. Let it come to a rolling boil. Add sugar and turn off the flame.
Use steel tumblers if you don’t have mugs. Stand in front of a basin and gently pour the hot tea to and fro. Use kitchen napkins to grip both the tumblers if they are too hot to touch.
When sufficiently cooled, transfer the tea into your mug and enjoy.
If that’s not a cup of tea chuckling in satisfaction, I don’t know what is.
a) Always practise tea-pouring standing against the kitchen sink to avoid making a mess. Once you feel confident, do it in front of stunned family members and guests. Impress them with your pouring skills.
b) While pouring tea, don’t raise the top mug too high if you are a rookie; instead, adjust the mug at the bottom to catch the stream from the top. Otherwise, you may scald yourself with hot tea.
c) Use low-fat milk. Mallus are stingy. We don’t waste full-fat milk on teas.
d) Don’t dunk anything in it. If you must, try banana chips. I kid you not.
e) Be sure to ask: “Chaaya engane?” It means, “How’s the tea?”
My opinions are, of course, personal. For all you know, you may hate it. “There is nothing special about Mallu tea-making!” you may argue and gripe about wasting your time with this long-ass article. But that’s a risk I am willing to take. But I sincerely hope you try it and like it. Nanni; Namaskaram.