The first time I ever had chai tea was at a dinner with my Pakistani professor. I had a class on Middle Eastern culture, and the highlight of the course was a dinner hosted at the department head’s house. My professor and his wife had slaved away at this dinner, likely for days. We had falafel, figs, couscous, baklava, and the best hummus hands down I have ever had. It was all from scratch, down to the homemade pitas.
There were other dishes: I barely recall one with lamb, but I do remember it being like a giant, foreign Thanksgiving spread.
Keep in mind that this was a version of me prior to any Eastern food exposure outside of the realm of takeout Chinese. I had never had an Indian curry. I had never had a falafel. My version of couscous came with some mixed veggies at the cafeteria. I tried grocery store hummus one time, and it was nasty.
It turned out my first real Middle Eastern cuisine experience was flat out the best possible experience a person could have. But with no frame of reference, I downplayed my experience like maybe, perhaps, this stuff might be pretty good.
But if only I had known.
That chai was sitting in a giant pot on the stove simmering away. It still had the loose spices in it, which made me skeptical. Don’t you skim those off? Do they use strainers in Pakistan? I didn’t know, and I wasn’t going to show my ignorance by asking.
So I avoided the drink until dessert time.
Turns out it was pretty damn good, so I had two cups.
My knowing classmates were taking the stuff home in jugs, because, “Oh my God, what is this sorcery?” I presume they were used to the coffee shop stuff at best.
But I had no idea, so I sipped around my spices and chatted. I could feel my soul filling up to the brim with each sip.
Walking the seven blocks back to the dorms that night, I was elated. I held that inner glow, that warmth. Pure chai tea euphoria made me feel like I had opened my eyes and just noticed the colors. It was like looking through glasses for the first time. My feet were floating three inches off the ground. The world had presence.
And you would assume I am exaggerating, but I really am not. It was surreal.
So I resolved I would drink that chai tea stuff again, maybe buy some tea bags like a normal American. I remember it being Tazo tea. It was sad.
I tried coffee shops, but they all used Tazo or an instant mix. A couple years later I tried a loose leaf, because those whole spices had to be the secret.
So here I sit, with my loose leaf chai and vanilla almond milk, pretending to be a whole person when I once knew the greatest chai there ever was.
That’s not to say I am displeased with my chai. Anything close to perfection is still a good place to be.
I feel like it was a situation of first love lost; the one that you never expected was the real deal. Because there had to be other teas out there to love, right?
I will find you, someday.
Or maybe I’ll email that professor.