Mixed Tea

It is, he tells me, the best tea in Kenya. Not just because he makes it, he goes on to say, but because Kenyan tea is the best tea in the world anyway.

“Kenyan tea,” he says. “Everything is boiled together, mixed. It is better.”

And it is. Better than any other cup of tea I have ever drunk. He brings me the cup and saucer and the sugar bowl. Then he brings a silver tea pot. And I pour myself my first cup of Kenyan tea in 6 months, spoon in the sugar, and sit back to relax and enjoy. It is the first thing that I crave when I arrive back in Kenya. A cup of tea – or a mug – or a pot – of hot, sweet, milky tea. Chai. Mixed tea. African tea. Kenyan tea. Whatever you call it, to me it smells like Kenya.

The same principle of boiling tea leaves, water and milk together is standard in many African countries – and quite possibly in other places too. So call it chai, or mixed tea. To British ears, the idea sounds bizarre. Disgusting. Heretical. In a country where debate still rages (rages!) about whether the milk goes in the cup before or after the tea, the thought of boiling the ingredients together before adding copious amounts of sugar is horrifying.

In the interest of clarity, I have to confess that, at home in Scotland, I love nothing better than a mug of builder’s tea. Strong tea the colour of mud, with a splash of milk. Mouse-trotting tea – strong enough to trot a mouse across the surface. At work, I pour boiling water over a teabag in a mug, or use a teapot on a lazy weekend at home.

The two are quite separate – chai in Kenya, tea at home.

And I never, ever take sugar in my tea at home.

But in Kenya, ahhh, that’s another matter. Somehow the milky tea, with that scent of warm milk so redolent of childhood, demands heaped teaspoons of the pale golden sugar. This morning, in a filled-to-brimming mug, I put in 3 heaped teaspoons. It is a little too sweet now – I will adjust the calibration as my trip continues. On one visit, I decided to be healthy and not take any sugar. Well, that didn’t last long. Boiled milk, water and tea leaves require sugar. It helps with the heat, I tell anyone who will listen from back home.

Aye, right.

Making chai is an art. First, take your tea leaves. Yes, that’s right, tea leaves. Kenya has vast plantations in the high lands around Kericho and Nyahururu. Mile upon mile of bright green plantations. (There are all kinds of economic, socio-political and historical aspects I could dive into here – suffice to say that tea pickers/growers/owners are regularly featured in Kenyan newspapers.)

So, you take your tea leaves… But first, in a scrubbed sufira (a metal cooking pot – all sizes from tiny hold-in-your-hand size to children’s bath size) and you put in your milk and water and set over a jiko or fire or gas ring to come to a rolling boil. And you just let it boil, occasionally skimming the surface. Then add the leaves, and let it boil some more.
Then serve – pouring from high to low, high to low, to cool, to add a pleasing froth – perhaps to improve the texture? To cool it slightly? Oh, I don’t know the reason, but I love watching this ritual in a friend’s kitchen. Serve the mixed tea immediately, or store in an enormous thermos for later.

One aspect of chai I’m not fond of is that it forms a skin as it cools if you don’t keep drinking. A teaspoon can skim it off into the saucer – there’s always a saucer – but it is also redolent of childhood suppers where the skin in your hot milk got stuck to your top lip and… I’m shuddering at the memory.

Making chai is not for the weak or faint-hearted. It requires skill, patience and cunning. Visiting friends Scola and John in the foothills of Mount Kenya several years ago, and I was somehow left in charge of the chai boiling away in the sufira. Scola had added spices so it smelled amazing, just the thing you need on a cool rainy day in the mountains. Her kitchen was a wooden hut, with an open fire surrounded by flat stones, the walls thick and black with soot. We would sit in there for hours chatting, being smoked like kippers, warm and complicit in cooking and preparing food. However, this time I’d been left alone in charge of the boiling chai. It was fine for a while, the pale, golden liquid boiling away merrily but then, it began to rise up out of the sufira, the creamy rolling froth rushing to the rim, and threatening to spill over. Oh yes, boiling milk tends to do that, doesn’t it? And even when mixed with water, apparently. Not wanting the fire to be doused, I looked around for something to pull the metal pan off the fire – a cloth or something – but there was nothing. Scola was too far away to hear me yelling and I had to do something fast. In the end, I improvised with some firewood, using two sticks as giant pincers to attempt to manoeuvre the sufira off the fire and onto the floor. But the rules of physics were against me, the sufira slipped, and I doused the fire by cowping most of the chai over it. Of course, it was only at this point that it was safe to go and find Scola and confess my ineptitude. It became the joke of the visit, and she warned me that I’d never make a good Kenyan wife.

Making chai in Kenya – much more of an adventure than boiling the kettle and dunking in the teabag at home! But nevertheless, is always an adventure which I keep for Kenya – and somehow it becomes the only way to drink tea.

31st December 2015


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