A Little Ethiopian Inspiration: Simply Easy Chai (Boston race report)

If you are here for a recipe, this is definitely one of those posts for quickly scrolling to the end, because what is to follow really is much ado about nothing. Literally, as in rambling explanation of the extended space of nothing separating this entry from the last one. I've been slacking off blog time, big-time, lately, but the woeful neglect hasn't been from lack of thought. In fact, I've been burning to write up some fun discoveries, but, even now, I'm accepting they're just going to have to wait.  The truth is, I've been plain overwhelmed. Coming back from Boston late Monday, quads screaming from being forced to sit on a Southwest jet mere hours after enduring relentlessly pounding downhill pavement, was like being hurled back into a reality I hadn't realized we'd left. One expects the deluge of responsibilities and shelved projects following something the scale of an ironman, but "just another marathon" seemed way too run-of-the-mill for that to happen, even a big one I was oh so anxious over, and I had naively anticipated boundless energy and time afterward. But the world's oldest official marathon is particularly momentous, whether you're going for it or out for a fun run, and the things that made it special seem to have soaked in even more after the fact. This, combined with the busy end-of-school-year push through assessments/performances/planning, overhanging writing projects, and other stuff I want to do so much if only given more time and energy, left me feeling just a wee bit hollow this week. And, I'm tired. So while I've wanted to nourish this blog that I sometimes think I take too seriously, I've felt too flat to make a worthy attempt. Until, in sleepy agitation, I came across a recipe for an easy chai that seemed to capture with simple sincerity a bit of the Boston experience that won't  make the race report, but wants to be remembered nevertheless. The most memorable thing about Boston isn't the course, or even the history, it's the people. From the banshee-like shrieks through Wellesley to the powerfully united beat pulling racers up Heartbreak, the crowd support is amazing. And for me, the experience was all the more special as another marathon shared with Dave; an opportunity to spend a long weekend with good friends, especially our dear friend Mary; and time with my parents, who traveled up from Connecticut and whom we shamelessly allowed to take care of us the entire four days, from arrival to departure. Food is a main medium of our family bonding, a traditional way of saying "I still love you, even though I don't agree with you, or have a clue why you're choosing what you're doing". Ironically though, food presented big potential for Stress before we left Colorado. For one thing, it became clear during a phone call prior to the trip that my parents could see no reason why we would not want Chinese food the night before a marathon. I panicked myself enough (do even the Chinese eat Chinese as their pre-race meal?) I even enlisted my little sister, a darling and definitely the perfect, golden daughter (and that's said in admiration, not spite, honestly!), to subtly drop hints that it wasn't a good idea. The semi-sneaky ploy was successful, and once in Boston, we moved the planned Chinese dinner from Sunday to Saturday, when Mary was joining us. Plans changed, however, when we were hastily denied a table at Betty's Wok & Noodle, as that establishment, adjacent to Symphony Hall, was about to be packed with concert-goers who had made reservations. Instead, we went across the street to a quiet, inconspicuous little Ethiopian place, which satisfied on every level, even superstitiously. Surely Ethiopian was an auspicious way to go, pre-marathon!

It seemed at first like we'd walked into a small cafe with just a few tables for two against the walls, but our host/waiter (and maybe chef/owner) brought us to a back room that held the intimacy of a living room, with a few low tables and stools, and warm, simple decorations. The food was soothingly delicious, spongey injera soaking up lentils, collard greens, spinach, beef, and chick peas, all seasoned in a manner both rich and delicate. When "our guy" overheard us wondering about teff flour and brought a small bowl of seeds for us to see, it felt everything like friendly hospitality and nothing like eaves-dropping.  At the end of the meal, Mary and I both had "Traditional Ethiopian Tea". That drink  was so lovely, a lot like chai, but with a deeper authenticity about it than what I've grown accustomed to, and hitting the perfect notes of sweet-spicy. Mmmmm.  I considered it richly sweet, until I tasted Dave's Peanut Tea. Dave and my parents all ordered the peanut tea, which we discovered only resembles tea in that it is a drink you serve hot, and most definitely needs to be considered dessert. A little taste comes with a big *pow*, and it is utterly delicious, like a hot chocolate only peanut butter, as long as you have a sweet tooth. After that, sugar cane might come across as bland.

The tea, the atmosphere, the dinner, all seemed to have a chamomile-like effect, because I woke up the next morning feeling more composed than I can ever really expect of myself when I'm ladling on the dread. In the end, we did have Chinese food the day before the marathon, but it was Asian fusion really, and just right (who says Asian-Italian isn't the perfect combination?). In the race, I could tell from the first step it wasn't going to be one of those days where I got to experience being "in the zone", and that I was going to have to really tough-it-out for a time I'd be happy with. I did grit my teeth and gruel my way through it, though, making a conscious effort to soak in the amazing atmosphere, and was very satisfied with the result after all.  Even more so when I found out that Dave, after being riddled with injury in the training lead-up, finished with a 2:55 and injury-free! It didn't actually matter all that much what we ate the days preceding, but you already know that; it was all about focus and effort and taking in every moment. Of course. OK,  I'm going to get corny (as I so often do) and go out of my way to loosely connect our Ethiopian tea here, too. Because, while I don't really know a lot about Ethiopia, mostly just that I love their food and would also love to go there one day, watching the Ethiopian runners you can't help but marvel at quality through economy and hard work  (pure, staggering talent, too, but that doesn't fit my analogy so well). Now, I may be the only tea enthusiast who until now was unaware of just how easy (and cheap!) it can be making your own spicy chai at home, and from weak value-pack black tea as a base, at that. (See, quality through economy!) Finding this African Chai recipe online this week, I was excited to find it pretty closely resembled the tea from Boston, enough to lift the post-marathon doldrums, and I got to enjoy it with the kind of pure calm and reflection that brings what's most meaningful to the forefront. It's funny how scared of this race I was, one little person among 30,000 or so. We're so lucky we can afford the brain power to worry about adventures we choose like that. We had an amazing experience, and got to share in incredible performances of friends (yay Mary, Artie, Brendan, Owen, Jay, Sabrina, Alexis, Elizabeth!), too. It thrilled me to bits that my parents, despite openly wishing I'd turn the key on the whole marathon/triathlon thing and just be satisfied, tracked us on their phones, and my Dad watched and cheered us near the finish (my Mom had to head back to CT for work). Something about quietly sipping tea does exaggerate my penchant for getting overly sentimental, but really, I can't ask for much more than that.  : )

Chai Tea (from the Congo Cookbook)

What you need

  • equal parts cold water and milk (three or four cups each is good) *I went heavier on the water than the milk for stronger tea--Mary's and my teas weren't actually milky
  • three or four teaspoons of tea (plain black tea is best) *you can use plain tea bags instead, if you like
  • whole cardamon seeds or ground cardamom
  • ground ginger
  • sugar *I used honey, and went light on it--about 1 teaspoon for 2 cups liquid

**I also added a pinch of nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, and a few thin slices of raw ginger root

What you do

  • In a saucepan combine all ingredients. Add the spices: a few cardamom seeds (or a few pinches of ground cardamom) and just a pinch of ginger should be enough spice. Bring mixture to a low boil and simmer for a few minutes. Pour the tea through a strainer into a teapot and serve immediately.
  • Without the ginger this recipe also works well for coffee.
  • Serve Chai with dishes from Eastern Africa.

Photo credit: Flikr user Anne Varak