I decided that home-mixed Chai would make good Christmas presents this year and found some quiet time last week to make up a batch. The last time I made Chai I had figured out that it worked best to start by layering the whole spices first and then adding the black tea to the top.
So I began with a handful of whole black peppercorns which made a cheerful ringing sound as they landed in the glass jar. Pepper was swiftfully followed by a layer of rich dark cloves and fragrant cardamon pods nestled on a bed of star anise. Cinnamon was next on the agenda and I had picked out a couple of whole sticks to crumble onto the spicy pile when a feeling of déjà vu came over me. I stopped for a moment and closed my eyes. The scent of frangipani floated into my awareness and then I remembered.
I was standing in the kitchen of a large troppo house in Darwin back in about ’95. The spirtual life was pretty new to me then and I had just returned from a meditation circle held in a bamboo tipi in a backyard in Nightcliff. There had been a lot of talk about following your intuition, feeling what was “right” for you and the magical synchronicities that occurred when you had made such a profound discovery. I had nodded silently as if in complete agreement, drank some rather unpleasant herbal tea and eventually left after the obligatory group hug.
The moon was full as I cycled home and my belly was rumbling. The only thing my intuition seemed to be telling me that night was that I was hungry and since it was nearly 9pm and I hadn’t eaten since lunchtime that didn’t seem like such a profound revelation. I arrived home to a quiet house and went straight into the kitchen. I had all the makings of a new Moroccan stew I wanted to try from a recipe book my housemate had found in the second hand store. It was an interesting account of middle eastern cooking which was not as spicy as I had expected but rather relied heavily on cinnamon, cumin and ground coriander. The recipe was simple enough and it wouldn’t take long to cook.
Garlic and onions went into hot oil, followed by some salted chicken pieces dusted in ground spices. Celery, carrots and diced tomatoes turned it into a stew with sprinkled black pepper to give it a bit of heat. The pot was simmering and I started cleaning up, picked up the recipe book and discovered that the cinnamon sticks I had bought especially were hidden underneath. “Damn!” I thought, then shrugged, “better late than never”. I checked the book for quantity and found the recipe to be vague. “Whole cinnamon” it said. “Yes but how much?” I wondered. I pondered for a while…..too much could be too sweet, but not enough and the taste would be lost in the stronger flavours of the stew.
I held a whole cinnamon stick in both hands, trying to decide whether to break it in half or not. I was stuck. It seemed like I stood there forever, completely unable to make a simple decision. The recipe was new to me, the flavours an unusual combination. I had never used cinnamon in a savoury dish before, what if I used too much? What if it completely ruined the stew? I decided to break the cinnamon stick, then stopped. I decided to use the whole thing, then hesitated.
My hands were suspended over the pot, clutching the solitary cinnamon stick like my life depended on it when suddenly someone shoved me from behind. I physically felt a hand in the small of my back give me a solid shove and I lurched forward, startled and dropped the whole cinnamon into the simmering pot. I watched, mesmerized as it slowly sank beneath the juicy surface. There was no going back now. We were changed, that cinnamon and I. Slowly my heart regained its normal rhythm and I settled back on my heels, eventually daring to look behind me although I knew that there was nothing there except the cat on the sofa giving me a strange look from across the room. “Yep,” I thought. Intuition, huh?
By some magical synchronicity the stew turned out to be fabulous, and intuition never shoved me quite so hard again. I slowly learned how to listen to the quiet promptings within, to follow my feeling and at worst, to take a risk on being wrong. I had a good story to tell the next time I was sitting in that tipi and the nods and murmers of approval from around the circle didn’t seem so bad after all. I was starting to become a believer, not to mention, an adventurous cook.
I closed the lid tightly on the last jar of chai, sticking down a circle of Christmas paper on the top and finishing it with a twirl of ribbon. As I left the house I glanced over at the bamboo tipi and noticed that the grass was getting long inside. “Might need to mow that later, ” Intuition said quietly, “some friends might be coming over…”