If At First You Don’t Succeed, Chai Chai Again
Posted on May 30th, 2012
“You?!” exclaimed my wife in utter disbelief when I told her I’d been invited to write an article for Born Hungry.
No point being offended by the truth. In the kitchen, I’m often as useful as this guy probably is to world peace. But that’s not why my wife started muttering obscenities after my announcement. Her bewilderment was rooted in something else that only she knows about me (until now): I can be a bit of a hater when it comes to food.
I hate cooking. I hate eating. I hate cleaning. I really hate cleaning. Sometimes, I think the infinite cycle of preparing and consuming food is one massive time-consuming evolutionary inefficiency—a stark reminder that we’re mere mortals, brutes even, hiding behind shabby rationalizations like stand-up mixers and words like “gourmet.” To make matters worse, I often transform into Larry David from Curb Your Enthusiasm when you take me to a fancy restaurant. Speaking of, why is it that the fancier the restaurant, the more cryptic their menu? I’m looking at you, French establishments.
This is not to say that I don’t enjoy a good meal or crave certain foods. I love bread. Pizza. Paneer tikka masala. Steamed dumplings. Steak. Tacos. Fried okra. Blueberries. Popcorn. Chocolate cake. I love chocolate cake. Pretty much anything with sugar in it. To be honest, I’m not picky. You can pretty much hand me anything and I’ll eat it.
So, why have we wasted precious space on my words? What in the name of a thousand cute Weimaraner puppies possessed someone to invite me to write a post on this lovely site? The clue to the answer, a Google search away, is Internet fame. If you search for “chai recipe” (quite possibly the exact keywords anyone would type if they want to make a decent cup of chai), you’ll see my blog post, The Perfect Chai Recipe, near the top of the results. And this brings us to the next, and most puzzling question yet: Wat?
Over the last few years, I’ve invested in learning enough recipes to sustain me if I were looking to avoid takeout for a few days and my wife were out of town. Every recipe in my repertoire meets non-negotiable efficiency standards: flavors must be repeatable, prep time must be minimal, and cleanup must be quick. It’s a mostly typical assortment. Turkey wraps and sandwiches. Chicken stir-fry. Minute rice (though, I’ve been forbidden to bring any into the house for the last couple of years, so I’ve been feeling kinda screwed in that department). Snacks of raw fruit and cheese. Salads. Eggs—scrambled, omelets, fried eggs. And finally, atypically so, chai.
My wife taught me how to prepare chai one afternoon in our home in rainy Kirkland, WA. It took us around 15 minutes to prepare it the first time around—far longer than the 10ish-minute max requirement to be included in my repertoire—but I quickly realized it was because of the lack of operational efficiency. Did we really need a measuring cup for water and milk (it’s just as easy to use the teacup that you’re going to drink out of when you’re dealing with measurements with fairly constant ratios)? What about a cutting board? Why was that needed? And sliced ginger? Was it necessary to boil the water only with loose leaf tea before adding the spices for another round of boiling?
With a little experimentation, I was able to shave 7 minutes off the average cooking time and chai joined my repertoire. Soon enough, I earned the esteemed privilege of becoming my household’s chai wallah, a role I take very seriously, particularly on the “repeatability of flavor” front. One afternoon, I thought to myself that if someone admittedly culinary-challenged like me can make such a great cup of chai, surely anyone could. So on a whim, I wrote The Perfect Chai Recipe.
And that’s how I met Nicole, the founder of this magazine. Actually, I’ve met quite a few people around the world because of the post. Some leave a comment on my blog. Others link to it from their own blogs. And then there are those who email me their gratitude. But it’s not true Internet fame until you’ve been flamed. My favorite was the guy who was offended that I had the audacity to use the word “perfect.” “You’re using tea powder,” he objected (but this is what they call loose leaf tea in India), “so it’s ridiculous to call it perfect. If you want to get technical, this isn’t even chai. You’re a fraud!” I thought better than to start a debate about our evolutionary propensity to be deceptive: how we’re all frauds.
Irrespective of Internet fame and charges of fraudulent behavior, the real story here is that maybe my contributing this piece is not such an outlandish idea. Maybe there’s an argument that suggests that I am, in fact, the poster child for contributing to Born Hungry. After all, I am an impeccably strong representative for culinary-challenged individuals out there: a group whose likely total population is sizeable and certainly warrants representation.
But, at a slightly deeper level, my ability to prepare chai and rise to Bieberish ranks on the Internet (so I’m embellishing a little) for my recipe (one that’s not really mine, but has existed for hundreds of years; does someone smell a fraud in the room?), is a testament to the keystone characteristic of the human spirit: curiosity. Not your average, lazy curiosity, rather the kind that drives us to overcome our own limitations to achieve previously unreachable goals, making us more complex human beings, and in the process, giving us a sense of Flow. And, if you really want to get technical about it, what drives our curiosity—whether it be the quest for fame or the need to survive—is mostly irrelevant. The only thing that matters is that, figuratively speaking, we’re born hungry.