Photo: © Harpo Inc./George Burns
Two years ago I met a family in India whose entire home consisted of one 10-by-10-foot room. This husband and wife ate, slept, and raised their three daughters crammed into a space so tiny, they didn't even have room to change their minds!
But they did have chai.
As we sat together on the floor of their living room/kitchen/playroom/bedroom, the husband reached behind the scrap of cloth that curtained off most of their few possessions, pulled out a tea set that had probably been around for generations, and proceeded to brew me the most incredible cup of chai I've ever experienced. Was it the pungent mix of spices or the openhearted welcome that made it so unforgettable? I asked the man how he made it, but he only smiled and said matter-of-factly, "Tea is just a part of our lives."
I came home from that trip obsessed with making tea a bigger part of my life. I searched for the perfect blend of pepper and ginger, cardamom and cinnamon, black tea, white tea, rose petals, and orange and lemon peel the way some women search for their signature scent. I learned to boil purified water at just the right temperature—212 degrees for black leaves, 175 degrees for white and green—at the same time I steam the almond milk. I found that frothing the milk makes it feel like a special occasion, and that splurging on 2 percent milk might just be the ultimate indulgence. I figured out that how long you steep the tea really depends on the time of day you're preparing it; two tablespoons steeped for three and a half minutes at 4:30 in the afternoon is a guarantee that I'll be swinging from a chandelier at 4:30 in the morning.
There's a certain beauty, a sense of order, that I began to discover in the tea-making process. I wake up every day, I pray or I meditate, I take in the silence, and then I start the tea. As the tea steeps, my head clears; as the flavors develop, my thoughts come into focus. I get centered, I get calm. I get ready for whatever the day is going to bring.
I like how the steam swirls and disappears; the woodsy, citrusy, spicy, floral fragrance; the way the translucent amber color turns creamy beige with milk. I like spooning a stiff dollop of foam on top, the feel of the mug in my hands.
I use the same mug every day. I carry it from city to city. Whether I'm in India, South Africa, or a hotel room in France, I'm hanging on to my little canister of chai, my infuser, my teapot, my mug—my sense of continuity, my small taste of home.
And when I'm at home, tea is something that I love to share. I've got Stedman hooked. I make it for the folks who work with me, for the security guys. I'll offer a cup to the woman who walks my dogs.
I hope I'm carrying the spirit of hospitality, humility, and generosity that the Hegdes, that wonderful family in India, offered me in their humble, love-filled home. It feels like an honor to share a cup of tea with other people. It feels like an act of grace.
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From the January 2014 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
We Hear You!