The smell is unmistakable—creamy and sharp, pouring skyward in billowy steam clouds that guide me down a narrow dirt path that flows with people and cows. Like a river, the village road meanders between two rows of shacks—some stacked with okra, cauliflower, and onions—others busy with tailors crouched over buzzing sewing machines, or bicycle mechanics spinning back wheels, and then finally, a plywood counter where an older man in a white tank top is ladling up sweet brown liquid into cups.
“Chai, chai!” the man calls out from his stand—as if he has good news to share. A blue flame glows beneath the bubbling steel pot as the village men line up for a drink. Small rupee notes are traded over the counter, along with white plastic cups that are clutched and sipped slowly.
Back home, a “chai latte” is a fancy order at some hip coffee shop, but up here in the village of Baranagar, on the shores of the great Ganges River—the traditional spicy, milky chai represents the humblest of drinks, packed with all the flavors and history of India. After the boiling water and heaping spoons of Darjeeling tea comes milk, cups of sugar, then fresh ginger, cinnamon sticks, black peppercorns, cloves, and green cardamom.
That same afternoon, back on board the Ganges Voyager II, the chef taught us all how to make masala chai—not a simple demonstration, but an actual hands-on class so that we could repeat the Indian classic on our own, back home.
“In North America,” he said, “you hear people say ‘chai tea’ but that is just wrong. It’s like saying ‘tea tea’ because ‘chai’ simply means ‘tea’ in Hindi.” One by one, our chef introduces the individual spices that comprise the complex and beautiful flavor of chai: subtle heat from the ginger, an exotic sweetness from the cloves and cinnamon, a fresh and verdant aftertaste of cardamom, and perhaps most surprising of all, the warmth of cracked black pepper.
“After saffron,” instructs the chef, “black pepper is one of the most valuable spices in the world.” While stirring the pot, he untangles the long history of India and the spice trade, and how centuries upon centuries of people and places have crisscrossed to bring us this brown drink today.
Cruising with Uniworld is never a spectator sport, but rather a nonstop cultural immersion. From that point forward, in every village we visit, and even on the busy streets of Kolkata, my nose can find the masala chai, and watching the chai walla stir up his own magical blend, I recognize each ingredient and take mental notes. I am not merely traveling in India—but soaking up India all around me so that when I’m back home I can do this again by myself, and make my own kitchen smell like that lovely road in Baranagar.