Calicut Chai

Traveling along the shore of the Arabian Sea in the trading city of Calicut recently, I imagined myself as a trader in the bustling late 19th century. Calicut has, for centuries, been the key trading city of Kerala, the Indian state on the southernmost tip of this vast and colorful country. On my right, the cluttered beach edges the misty sea, right out of a Vermeer painting. On my left, building after building partially hide behind tall stone walls, remnants of the architecture of the Arab, Portuguese, and Dutch traders who sought fortune in the trading of wood, spices, and tea.

It's late afternoon, not quite dusk, and our host has invited us to his two-story, century-old family business office, set around a crumbling, rock-strewn quad. We drive down the same path where sailors and tradesmen once carried huge logs of teak and other wood, crates of spices, teas, and bolts of silks and cottons over this small stretch of road, across the rough sand of the beach to load onto waiting boats that would end up in the Middle East, Europe, or points in between.

Inside the small, cool wood-walled rooms, closeted by sky blue painted shuttered windows, the traders sat on stone floors of etched designs, striking their deals for majestic wood for boats and homes. Other traders came to negotiate buys for their versions of gold: seeds of turmeric and coriander, quills of cinnamon, pods of cardamom, pearls of peppercorns, allspice or curry leaves, balls of nutmeg hugging the precious coral mace inside, and other costly, fragrant jewels. Still others came to buy the dried leaves of the camellia sinensis plant which would be brewed into a beverage called tcha, chai, and now, tea.

The rooms hold thick-hewned wooden furniture and the necessary additions of the trade: desks, cabinets for leather-bound ledgers, and pale painted walls that smell as rich as the teas and spices stored in nearby rooms for traders to see, taste, smell, touch before loading them up for the journey home. Upstairs, exhausted from their months-long trip, this building was home to the sailors who would be housed and fed here as long as it took their masters to complete their trade missions.

Today, the building is the core of the family's local business, employees still sleep and eat upstairs while traders sit more comfortably on wooden chairs, and, just as it did one hundred years ago, the sun still hits the now-peeling pale blue of window shutters bordering the open-space quad.

But, it is now the dawn of the 21st century, trading is more sophisticated, and the company now has offices in Bombay, plantations of coffee and spices, and its lumber business. In a few years, this uniquely walled center of commerce will give rise, literally, to a ten-story, contemporary office building with lively retail shops on the ground floor, and, hopefully, an area framed by those blue shuttered windows, a place devoted to the memorabilia of an historic style of trading.

Perhaps visitors will enjoy what we experience today: A quiet, peaceful moment sitting on benches and chairs that have held so many international traders who risked everything to travel the arduous routes from their homelands to India. Imagine, as we do now, the cacophony of Arabic, Dutch, Portuguese, English, Hindi, Malalayam and other languages that filled up these rooms as they sought to buy, sell, trade the perfumed gold of India: spices, teas, woods.

When the new building is finished, modern traders will sit down barely a minute when a discreet servant soundlessly and graciously will serve them a small, welcoming cup of hot tea like the one we drink this afternoon. It most likely will be the black ground tea from the 6,000-foot high peaks of nearby Munnar, melted to a soft beige with sweetened milk, and dusted with just a hint of garam masala, the mÈlange of spices grown on local spice farms as they have for millennia.

As visitors sip this masala chai, benefit from its double layers of soothing and energizing flavors, they will no doubt enjoy our view of the red ball of the setting sun dipping into the muted colors of the Arabian Sea dotted with boats arriving, departing, laden with the riches of Kerala.

Calicut Chai
If you can not travel to the exotic tropical state of Kerala, you can certainly bring a little of its pleasures directly to you with a sip of Calicut Chai. The essence is the spices, of course. Nothing can quite replace the aroma, taste, or romance of fresh spices, so seek them out in Indian, Middle Eastern, or specialty food shops to create this more delicate version of masala chai. We use whole green cardamom pods, and a whole nutmeg; fine Sri Lankan cinnamon and for a little kick, freshly-ground black peppercorns.

  • 1 whole nutmeg
  • 3 whole green cardamom pods, crushed
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 4 heaping teaspoons black tea (e.g. Nilgiri)
  • 20 ounces spring water
  • 4 ounces of whole milk, or more to taste
  • 1 good turn of a peppermill of fresh black peppercorns, if desired
  • 1 heaping teaspoon of sugar per serving or to taste
  • Directions:
    Heat water to just boiling and pour over tea leaves and steep five minutes. Sieve out leaves and pour steeped tea into a clean saucepan and add four quick gratings each of the nutmeg and the cinnamon, the crushed cardamom pods, and the milk. Heat through an additional three to five minutes. Scoop out the cardamom pods, then pour scented tea into cups and add sugar and a twist of pepper. Stir and savor. Yields four servings. Recipe easily doubles. Please feel free to adjust spices according to your taste.

    If you prefer a more delicate brew, just use cardamom; a pod or two are marvelous in a pot of fine Darjeeling black, Nilgiri black, or Ceylon black.