October 1, 2012

Memories, Chai, and A Kentucky Kitchen Goddess (aka mom)

As I sit on my squishy beige couch this cold and rainy fall afternoon, I warm my hands with a mug of  homemade chai. The smells and flavors remind me of the time I spent growing up with my mother and sister on Washington Avenue in New York. It's one of my very favorite flavor and scent memories; evoking feelings of sisterhood, comfort, warmth, and  love.

The winter months of my childhood were filled with fragrant spices, homemade soups, and quite often, pleasant music from the Scottish Moore's. My mother is a Scotts Irish Kentucky raised beauty and one hell of a hostess. She became a trained chef when we moved from New York to Kentucky in 1995, but, has always been able to make a genuinely fabulous meal for just about any seemingly-barren refrigerator or pantry. She is 6'2, blonde, and bold...you should see her in a chef's cap!

Cooking with my mom, Chef Sandhu, Spring 2012

As kind hearted as she is, she can be pretty intimidating to many. This is personality characteristic I really appreciate having grown up with as a child of the 1980's; a time when many women were just only beginning to re-establish their ground in working society. She taught me integrity, and that you can do anything if you set your mind to it. She was also incredibly creative. Not only did she come up with fantastical flavor combinations, she also could create a super amazing fairy tale on the spot before bedtime. My sister and I were lucky kids.

Though, she and my father only had two children, she has always managed to make enough food for a large family. It is pretty hilarious really. We would have left overs FOR-EV-ER unless a few of our lucky friends could make it for dinner. In that case, we would usually eat whatever it is that they most wanted such as chicken parmigiana, Sponikopita, spaghetti and meatballs, Chana Saag, corned beef and cabbage, etc.

 My mom is that kind of lady, she is incredibly generous, and thoughtful. If she knows you like something, she will be sure to have it on her table when you get there. She loves the opportunity to cook from her heart.

Kentucky Kitchen Goddess

Kitchen Goddess, yes. I really should have a photo of her stirring over a glorious pot of steaming soup matted and framed for my kitchen wall for inspiration. I loved to blend flavors and spices for the meals while growing up, and, quite often, she would let me do that. She made a lot of vegetarian food, Indian food, Greek food and Irish food too.

Aside from playing "little chef", I could be found bouncing from counter top to counter top frantically trying to keep up with her whirlwind of a...creation. She's an artist in the kitchen. There's not time for cleaning when in the midst of a meal! At times she definitely embodied the "Kitchen Nazi" archetype, yep, it's true. (Sorry Mom.) So, for years I kind of thought I hated cooking because 'cooking meant' playing the role of prep cook who was told what to do and when, ha. I say this all in love and jest, as I wouldn't trade those memories for the world! Actually, most of the time I enjoyed the meditative aspects of a simple chopping task. I think it was the amount of food that made me feel moments of stress while in the kitchen with mom.

Her culinary students couldn't believe my aversion to cooking, "You're Chef Sandhu's daughter and you don't like cooking? What's wrong with you?!". They knew me better than I did at the time. It ends up that I love to cook and only took me about 25 years to figure it out! I just like to take my time while doing it so I can compulsively keep the kitchen clean as I go along. I have embraced my inherited magical power of being a "pantry chef" and I love it. Give me 5 odd ingredients and I will make it work...my mom was a great teacher in resourcefulness and innovation and an even better on at taking risks and listening to your intuition. 

Intuitive cooking

It's the only way I can describe it! When I watch my mother cook, she uses no recipe, she "feels" how much of what needs to go in. So, over the years, I developed the same knack. Sometimes I wonder if it's our kitchen spirit guides talking to us. I like to joke that when my mother passes on, she is likely to take a front seat at my stove and start directing, ha. 

My mother learned how to cook traditional Greek food while living near a Greek family in Detroit during her early twenties. After she and my father married, she spent a lot of time in his home village in Farid Kot, India, learning how to make traditional Indian meals. She is the kind of woman who had friends from all over the world and, I can only imagine, that often, they connected to the topic of their traditional foods. She makes some of the best Indian and Greek food that I have ever eaten. I know, I am surely biased. But, my friends say the same thing about her cooking, I swear!

So, these are the thoughts and  memories that come to mind as I sip my chai. The breeze coming from my windows echoes chimes and a shiver in my bones, but, I have my warming cup of homemade chai. "Thanks Mom!" for all those years of teaching me the same 'recipes' over, and over again. It's taken a few decades, but, I think I have finally gotten it. 

I know I promised a recipe for your own cup of a rainy day cup of Chai, and that you will get. I didn't however promise exact ingredient quantities! This wasn't supposed to be a cruel trick. However, it seems to have possibly turned into an exercise of "intuitive cooking" for you!

Rainy Day Chai

Approximately 4 cups of water 
Tbsp of cardamom pods
Tsp of cloves
Tbsp of fennel
1 cinnamon stick
2 cups of whole organic and/or raw milk (or substitute, such as flax milk)
Sugar, honey or stevia (sweeten to taste!)
1-2Tbsp Black Tea (Earl Gray works great! Though...not quite "traditional".)

Loose Instructions ;)
Simmer your water and spices on high in a pan that you keep covered with a lid for about 10 minutes. You can taste the 'spice tea water' to see if it is strong enough. I like mine punchy. I also prefer a stronger flavor of fennel, than cardamom, then cloves, and not a whole lot of cinnamon. You can adjust the spices to your taste. 

Once the tea seems strong enough, add a tea ball or strainer with the black tea to the mix. You can keep this in for about 2 minutes and then remove. Taste test again, is the tea flavor strong enough that it will not seem diluted once you add the milk? The other day I was making  chai for a friend but hesitated, as the only black tea I had was Earl Gray! However, it turned out great! Lesson: resourcefulness is good!

Once the tea mixture seems ready to go, add the milk. My mother always taught me to let the milk froth up until it almost flows over the pan and then immediately turn down the heat to prevent spillage. Of course, most milks substitutes will not froth up. At this point add your sugar, honey or stevia to taste.

You can strain the tea as you pour it into your steamy mugs...it's delicious! A super lovely treat to bring to a friend's house on a craft night BTW :)

P.S. Mom, if you read this and have anything to add to the recipe, please do!

Reflections on Taste Testing, don't be nervous!

When intuitive cooking, the only thing you may need is an idea of what you may like your chai to taste like! If you prefer, you can start by tasting each spice separately so that you are familiar with their flavor. As you make your tea, don't be afraid to taste-test it. This is where you can decide how much more of what spice you think needs to go in.  If you are feeling really frisky, consider making the tea purely by intuition and "feeling" how much or little to put in. I think tea is a great place to start with intuitive cooking adventures--it is much easier to risk having to compost it back to the earth than an entire meal when you are hungry.

Happy tasting!


  1. This is so beautiful. I loved meeting your mom in this way - and I'm so happy to have this recipe. Now, I have my own treasured chai-sipping memory!

  2. Thank you Lori-Lyn! I am so happy that you will use the recipe :)