We had guests over, and I was nervous. This was not unusual. I was always nervous when guests come over. But what was not usual was the news we received that morning.
My mother-in-law’s test results were back, the cancer had returned with a vengeance. The original tumor in her large intestine regenerated, and so had the metastasised legions in her liver. The prognosis wasn’t just bad, it was freaking catastrophic.
But we didn’t have time to discuss the results, or even to mentally process them. My mother-in-law’s cousins were expected to come over within half an hour, so it was imperative that we get everything prepared for tea as quickly as possible. While they were my mother-in-law’s first cousins, they lived abroad and so rarely came to our home that this was considered a formal occasion. I wanted to make sure everything was perfect so that, at least with this visit, she could be at ease. They did not know about her illness, and she wanted to keep it that way.
“I don’t want anyone making a fuss over me,” she said when she made her wishes known.
Things started out smooth enough, I served my homemade chocolate cake with chocolate sauce; everyone I serve it to loves it. And they did love it…well, except that one cousin that didn’t like chocolate. AT ALL. But that’s okay! I would salvage things with my chai. I make the best loose leaf tea in my family (well, except for my husband, who taught me the technique, but I’m usually the one serving it, so he doesn’t count). Everyone loves my chai, these cousins would love my chai, and it would be awesome. And I was going to increase the awesomeness, because my sister-in-law recently told me that changing the water-to-milk ratio from 1:1 to 1.5:1 makes the tea even better.
Okay, so 10 cups of tea, with the 1.5:1 ratio, that would be 6 cups of water to 4 cups of milk. I measured the water and the milk precisely in the mugs we usually use to drink tea in and mixed it together in a saucepan. I was about to turn the flame on when I realized, oh shoot, this is formal company, and formal company is served tea in the teacups from our formal china set, much smaller than our usual tea mugs. I only need to make 5 cups of tea, not 10. But now the milk and the water are already mixed, and I can’t separate them…ok I’ll just measure out half and transfer to a different saucepan.
Whew, great save. Now everything is going to be awesome. They’re going to love the tea and my mother-in-law is going to be so proud, and she’s going to be like, “That’s our Becky. She didn’t know anything when she came here, but she learned so much.”
Oh crud. Crud, crud, crud. I lost count of the cups. Did I put in 5 or 6? I can’t figure out how much tea to put in unless I know EXACTLY how many cups I have in here.
“Becky, how long till the tea’s ready?” my mother-in-law asked from the drawing room.
“Um, just a few minutes!”
Oh God, oh God. Okay, I’ll just put in enough tea for 5 cups and if it looks too light, I’ll add more.
Why is it taking so long? It’s not supposed to take this long. Maybe I really DID put in 6 cups. Okay, I’ll just add a bit more tea.
A few minutes later, the tea was ENTIRELY the wrong color and wayyy too dark. I tasted it. Blech, it was waaaay too bitter. There wasn’t enough milk in the mixture.
If I add milk now, it’s going to take even LONGER to get ready. Okay, don’t panic, just think, Becky.
And suddenly the answer was clear. I’d simply use tea whitener. It would make up for the milk deficiency and lighten the color of the tea. I dumped a few scoops of Nestle Everyday in the mixture until the tea looked pretty enough, sent a quick prayer to Allah, then brought out the tea. (I was too nervous to taste it again.)
I sat down and took a small helping of the food we set out.
“This cake is so delicious, Rebecca,” one of the cousins said. “Baji tells us you made it?”
“Yes I did, aunty. Thank you, I’m glad you like it.”
The cousins sipped their tea.
“Is this tea made with powdered milk?” One of the other cousins asked.
“I don’t see why it should be, we had plenty of fresh milk for tea,” my mother-in-law responded, glancing at me.
I quickly stuffed a piece of chocolate cake in my mouth, and chewed as daintily as I could.
“Hmm, there is definitely a hint of Nido in here, I’m sure,” the cousin started speculating.
“Are you enjoying your visit, Aunty?” I quickly changed the subject, addressing the cousin who liked the cake.
“Oh, yes, we always have such a pleasant time here…”
I continued to chat with her about her life abroad, and the others chatted amongst themselves, and the subject of the tea was, thankfully dropped.
Until one of the aunties went to refill their cup and found the teapot empty.
“Oh, would you like me to make you some more?” I asked.
“Yes, that’d be lovely.”
I went into the kitchen and made another two cups, put it in the teapot and brought it out for her. Until I realized that they ALL wanted refills.
“Oh were there only just the two cups?”
“Um…no, of course not,” I stuttered. “There’s more in the kitchen, silly me, I’ll just…be right back.”
How much chai did these people drink?!?!
I quickly made another batch, feeling like an idiot every minute. DUH, I should have just made the whole batch of 10 in the first place. Now they know I’m in here making another batch and it’s so embarrassing.
I brought out the other batch just in time to catch the tail end of a hushed conversation.
“She’s still new to this, she’s never done this before,” my mother-in-law was saying to one of her cousins.
“My daughters were taking care of the whole house by the time they were in matric,” the cousin was replying.
I felt my cheeks heat up with embarrassment.
“Um, excuse me one moment, I think the baby is crying upstairs,” I set down the tea pot, turned tail, and ran to my room as fast as I could (paper napkins may have flown in my wake).
Now, in the lady’s defense, I’m sure she wasn’t saying something bad about me in comparison, it’s practically a rule that Pakistani mothers do not spare an opportunity to brag about their daughters. But the conversation was so much the complete opposite of what I had been hoping for.
I closed the door behind me. My younger son was still, thankfully, asleep. I put my head in my pillow to muffle out the sound and I cried. I cried and I cried and I cried.
I cried because I DID KNOW HOW TO MAKE TEA, but I screwed it up because I was nervous, and now they all think I’m an idiot.
I cried because WHY did this have to be so hard for me? Why couldn’t I just get it RIGHT the first time for once?
I cried because I just wanted my mother-in-law to be happy, and I only succeeded in embarrassing her.
I cried because I had the awful thought of having to face this sort of thing alone one day, and how was I ever going to get this right without her around? Oh Allah, surely you understand, I NEED her here!
After I realized that I had probably spent way too much time upstairs, I washed and dried my face and made my way downstairs, just in time to see the guests getting ready to leave.
“Where were you?” My mother-in-law whispered to me.
“Upstairs,” I answered quietly.
She turned to look at me, her eyes missing nothing. “You were crying, weren’t you?”
“I’ll tell you later,” I whispered back, and we said our salaams and goodbyes to our guests. I busied myself in cleaning up, and when she didn’t mention it again, I thought that was the end of it. Until we all sat down to dinner that night.
“So why did you hide away upstairs today?” She asked me directly.
“I…er…that is…I…,” unable to come up with a partial truth that would suffice, I ended up spilling the whole, awful story of how I screwed up the measurements and I snuck in the Everday and then didn’t make enough the first time and then didn’t make enough AGAIN the second time. First she chuckled, then she giggled, and then she laughed. She laughed and laughed until tears rolled down her cheeks and she was almost out of breath.
“See, Ammi?” I said with a self-deprecating smile, “You could have gotten a well-trained daughter-in-law anywhere in Pakistan. But with me, your IMPORTED daughter-in-law, at least you don’t need a television. I’m free entertainment.”
She was smiling when she looked at me, her eyes light with mirth, but her tone was honest when she said, “Yes, you are certainly one of a kind.”
And I thought to myself, that if my screw-up could make her laugh on a day like this, then maybe it wasn’t so bad, after all.
This post is dedicated to my mother-in-law.
On May 30, 2015, she passed away.
Inna Lillahi wa Inna Ilayhi Rajioun
Surely, we are from Allah, and Surely we will return to Him.
Ammi Jaan, I pray that Allah fills your grave with Noor (Holy Light). I hope that the angels come to visit you with good news of your family, as they do for the righteous. And I pray that one of them has told you that your daughter-in-law is finally starting to get things right.
In loving memory of PJ
Best Loose Leaf Chai Tea: Recipe Notes
Chai should never be served alone! Pair it with any recipe from my Tea Time archives.
In the recipe card, I mention that our family uses Tapal Danedar. This is NOT an endorsement of Tapal or any kind of sponsored post, I’m just letting you know what we use so that you can have it as a reference point when you are brewing your own tea. We have been using it for years, so it’s the only brand I know how to work with very well. If any of you like any other brand of loose leaf tea that I can pick up in Pakistan, do let me know in the comments. I’ll definitely try it out, Inshallah!
This is the Best Loose Leaf Chai Tea for that authentic, Desi taste. It’s smooth, with just the right amount of strength.
- 2 cups water
- 2 cups full fat milk
- 2 green cardamoms, crushed
- 4 tsp sugar (or to taste)
- 4 tsp loose leaf chai tea (we use Tapal Danedar)
Put the water and milk in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Add in the cardamoms and sugar and, using a ladle, take a ladleful of the mixture out and slowly allow it to pour back into the saucepan. Keep doing this until the milk is a bit frothy and the cardamom and sugar are well incorporated.
Let the milk come to a boil, wait for it to form a skin and start to rise up.
Add the tea and quickly lower the flame (or else the tea will boil over) so that the mixture is at a light simmer. Again, use your ladle to take out some of the milk and then pour it back in. This will expose the tea to more air, bringing out its flavor. It will also further incorporate the flavor of the cardamom. Keep doing this until the tea is a light, golden-brown color.
At this point stop, increase the heat to bring it to a quick boil again (it should start to rise up once more) then remove from heat and pour through a strainer directly into cups (or a tea pot).
Depending on the fat content of your milk and the strength of the tea leaves you’re using, you may have to adjust the amount of tea you put in, but these ratios are a great starting point.
- When serving formal company, DON’T risk making something new for the first time or trying a new technique. Better to stick to the tried and true, else you risk making a mess of things!
Which leads us to:
- Don’t jump ship when things go wrong. It happens. Plaster a smile on your face. It’ll all be over soon enough.
- My sister-in-law was totally wrong, the 1:1 ratio is ALWAYS the best.
Have you ever messed up in front of company? What did you do?