I’m just beginning to realize how important food is to me. Every bite of a familiar food is loaded with nostalgia, accompanied by a dazzling parade of memories. Every recipe comes with a cascading waterfall of linked stories connected to the people in my life. Food brings with it a sense of family, closeness, love, friendship. Even now, far from the commune, I dislike eating alone; growing up on the farm, meals and snacks were always group activities. Someone was always hungry. The rustle of a bag or the soft whooosh of the refrigerator door could draw a crowd even if you started out alone in the roomy kitchen.
So, for me, chai (my preferred method of infusing caffeine into my veins) is a drink fraught with memories. When I took my first life-changing sip, I was nineteen. I was in the dreamy yet awkward stages of undeclared (and, according to the strict rules of the communal college I attended, forbidden) love. Just outside Haines, Alaska, the farm we lived on was a college destination predominately for youngsters like me who’d grown up in a network of communes across the world – mostly in North America, mainly in the North. I had left Ontario the previous year to attend the Christian college for a degree in education.
Now, here we were, a gaggle of sheltered kids freed from the early-morning weekly duty of helping in the commune’s bakery in Haines, basking in the freedom of an unsupervised stroll to a coffeeshop. Mountain Market was dubious territory. It was frequented by the “granola” crowd, modern-day hippies wearing natural fibers, sporting natural body odor, and topped with naturally unwashed hair. We, on the other hand, typically wore modest business-casual attire. Girls in skirts ranging from prim to trendy, but all below the knee, tops carefully buttoned to three fingers below collarbones; boys with shirts neatly tucked; all scrupulously clean. Not a beard or a matted lock of hair in sight.
I’d never had an espresso drink, never heard of chai, certainly never seen a headful of dreadlocks like the one on our friendly (yet terrifying) barista. “I don’t know what to order,” I whispered to my crush Aaron, who was at the college for just one year “for the experience.”
“You need to get a chai. You’ll love it.”
“A what?” At least espresso was identifiable as coffee. I had no idea what a chai was. It sounded as unfamiliar and scary as the tentacle-headed blond barista behind the counter.
“It’s a spiced tea with steamed milk. It’s really good.”
I wanted to impress Aaron with my willingness to try new things, with my bravery, so I tremulously ordered a chai. I don’t know if he was impressed with my daring, but my first sip drove out all thoughts of wowing the love of my life. It was the best thing I’d ever tasted. I was hooked.
And now the taste of chai is inextricably intertwined with the painfully agonizing delight of new love.
Fastforward a decade. On a frosty winter weekend morning, baby snugly tucked into his car seat carrier, I was meeting my best friend for coffee and gossip at a cafe in Anchorage, Alaska, exactly seven minutes from my home and two minutes from hers. I usually ordered a chai – why change a perfectly pleasing tradition? But I perused the menu anyway, because I’m a compulsive reader and menus contain words. And there it was. CHAI CITRUS SPRITZER. Made with spiced tea, citrus flavors, and ginger. I ordered. I sipped. I was transported. From then on, I was completely hooked. It was cool, it was spicy, it was fizzy, it was a perfect meld of complementary flavors.
At some point I stopped exclaiming over the amazing taste experience I was having and restrained myself from forcing Gracia to try the new drink, and we went on to our comfortable routine of comparing work stories, discussing politics and philosophy, noting tiny Niko’s milestones, and laughing uproariously together. But secretly, in the back of my mind, I was deconstructing the drink with each sip. A little orange…a little lime…a bit of ginger…I was sure I could recreate this.
And of course I did. And now I’m sharing it with you. Here, for your sipping pleasure, is the flavor of deep and lasting friendship; of Alaskan winter turning so very slowly to spring; of the burdens of new motherhood lightened by the irreverent hilarity of a childfree friend; all laced with that original chai flavor of new love on an Alaskan commune. I give you: Chai Citrus Spritzer.
1. Collect your ingredients: prepared chai, crystallized ginger, orange juice, lime juice, sparkling water, a tall glass. I drink chai routinely; I used to get my Oregon Chai at Costco in packs of three. You can get it at Fred Meyer, a Kroger store, too. Or you can brew your own from tea bags, as I do these days. (You can see my recipe here.) The crystallized ginger is usually available in the bulk section of a grocery store. It adds flavor, but if you can’t find it, don’t let that stop you from enjoying this drink. It’s not crucial. For the carbonated water, I like to use the store brand cans of lemon-lime flavored sparkling water from Fred Meyer. The mild citrus flavor helps merge all the flavors of the drink, and it just happens to be really really inexpensive. If it’s not available, just use any plain seltzer water.
2. Grate, crush, or use a knife to trim small pieces of crystallized ginger into the glass. How you prepare it depends on how big the chunks of ginger are. When I started making it, the crystallized ginger I found in the bulk section at Fred Meyer came in very small pebble-like pieces, and I just crushed them between my fingers as I dropped them into the glass. Now that I’ve moved and get it at a different store, it comes in big 1/2 inch cubes, and I have to cut pieces.
3. Add about two fingers of orange juice and a dash of lime juice.
4. Fill the glass just over half full with the prepared chai.
5. Top with carbonated water.