The Chai Way to Heaven

The route to discover organic tea perfection is full of adventure, writes Karen Pakula.

THE mid-morning coffee rush at Bills 2, Surry Hills, has set off a noisy outbreak of adult ADHD. Everywhere you look, people are jangled and distracted, though this doesn’t faze the sandy-haired chai wallah.

Calm and uncaffeinated, he cups his hands around a brew of warm, spicy, frothy milk. It’s made from an essence he’s flavoured just-so with Mother India’s sweet classics: cinnamon, cardamom and cloves. Nothing avant-garde. The West has all the chocolate chai it needs.

Like many universal truths, the recipe for pure chai is elusive. Our hero’s search for the perfect cuppa became an 18-month spiritual odyssey.

Marcus Child was a Surry Hills barista before he saw the light in chai lattes. He pulled macchiatos at his own hole-in-the-wall cafe in Goulburn Street and nursed a caffeine habit of 10 cups a day.

As the chai orders increased, he became curious and then unsatisfied.

“There are all these different companies from America who create chai by copying a flavour profile,” he says. “There are no spices in it, just things like cornstarch syrup and sodium carbonate to boost the flavour.”

It got him thinking: “If you can get a shot of espresso, I figured you’ve got to be able to get an essence of pure chai.”

A search in Australia proved fruitless but Child’s chai obsession raged on, conveniently merging with a long-held dream to ride across the world on a vintage motorcycle. He sold his share in the cafe and flew to Germany, where he picked up his beast – a 1988 BMW R100 GS Paris-Dakar – a GPS and “put in the co-ordinates for Manly and just followed the arrow”.

The route meant Child would have to cross through coffee-loving Austria, Italy and Greece before he’d get his taste of tea.

In Eastern Turkey, he sat with men whose teeth had been blackened from their habit of sipping tea with sugar cubes in their mouth. “I don’t think there are a lot of dates with girls over there,” he says.

Heading east, he entered Iran – and almost never made it out again. “I’d been there one day and the transmission on the motorcycle exploded,” he says. “But I got to this small village and two young guys came along. I don’t speak Farsi but I thought they were going to help me out. Instead they put me in a car and drove me into the desert.”

The police arrived and arrested everyone. Separated from his first captors, Child found himself alone in the desert at 1am with another bunch. And they weren’t interested in tea. He shared his accommodation that night with a chair and an armed Iranian determined to make him confess to his spying mission by screaming at him for hours. Until, praise be, an interpreter was found. Shaken but unhurt, Child was set free. His bike, however, was in bad shape and became worse after being dismantled by a desert mechanic on the evening before the start of Ramadan.

Child had two months in a men’s dormitory to contemplate chai and the art of motorcycle maintenance before he could make for Pakistan, more military and a whopping big mountain – Nanga Parbat. But at last, there was chai, “comforting tea boiled for hours with milk and infused with spices”. Close, he thought, but not the Holy Grail.

He had one more border to cross. He rolled down the mountain into India (his bike had broken down again) and through the gates of the Golden Temple of Amritsar. And there he was – the chai wallah from heaven, crushing spices with mortar and pestle before tossing them into a boiling brew with tea leaves and sugar.

Back in Sydney, Child refined the process and set up Australia’s first organic chai essence production facility and Chai Me was born. It’s on the menu at Bills 2 and Stella Blu in Dee Why, among others, and has been given the nod at Tropicana.

 

Source: Sydney Morning Herald