Food and drink like language and music spreads between cultures without rules. But within any given tradition, within any given culture, its as if there are unspoken rules that govern change; creativity is allowed, but to a point. In the world of food or music, for example, once you change a thing enough it is no longer what it started out to be. This can lead to certain kinds of conformity.  For example, in my grandmother’s Russian Jewish culture there were two kinds of gefilte fish–sweet without garlic, but with sugar, and spicy, without sugar, but with black pepper and garlic.  But no one in my grandmother’s generation or millieu would have thought to make gefilte fish with ginger, or to make fish balls with curry powder such as my Moroccan friend makes for Passover. By them, ginger was for sweets, for spice cake or cookies.

Likewise, my Indian and Iranian immigrant friends reveal a sort of innate conservatism about creativity beyond tradition–when they taste or hear about a dish I have made, based on something I had at their house, but that I have “improved” upon or changed,  I have heard uncomfortable chuckles accompanied by comments like,  “oh, that is interesting, we would never do that.” God knows what they are really thinking!  The tension between innovation and tradition. So while they, as insiders, find their creativity confined by the bounds of  tradition, and each may makes their own family or caste style of gefilte fish or fesanjan, or sambar, to them,  if you change it too much it is important to say that it is no longer gefilte fish or sambar or ghorma sabji. But  us “foreigners” as outsiders, who don’t know the culture fully, are more free, we can do whatever we want and not worry what a mother in law or guest might say.

And as food, like language and music, spreads across cultural barriers and moves on the planes of space and time,  it is liberated from such confines and new dishes are created with new ingredients. Who can imagine Indian food without chillis. But before the colonialisation of India’s coastal regions by the Portugese there were no chillis in Indian cuisine, only black pepper and long pepper.  And “curry” was brought to the Carribean, East Africa, and  Vietnam by Indians, but made new by Jamaicans and Somalis and Vietnamese.

In the long history of tea’s journey from China to the Confucionist peripheries–Korea, Japan, Vietnam, to my limited knowledge tea has always been drunk neat and simple even when made elaborate by ceremony: hot water and leaves; no sugar, no milk, no spices. On occasion certain flowers like Jasmine could be added. But once tea hit India several things happened. One was the addition of  hot milk, two was the addition of sweetener, usually sugar, and last was the addition of spices like cardamom and ginger.  In India the use of spices in tea rises to its height in “masala chai”  where differing combinations of ginger,  clove, cardamon,  cinnamon, long pepper, black pepper, anise, nutmeg, and in Kashmir, saffron and rose are added.

In Iran and the Arab world the milk was again deleted, but the cardamom retained; across the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine) cardamom was at times replaced by fresh mint, or in the cold rainy weather by a locally grown sage, accros the Magrheb  (North Africa) large amounts of fresh mint is very popular; it is the signature tea in Morocco and Algeria, the cups stuffed with mint upon which is poured hot, strong, heavily sweetened black or green tea. In Turkey they add dried apple, which gives a bit of a sour taste, with sage, lemon verbena, and other fragrant herbals, or just drink it plain, very strong and astringent, with or without sugar.

The funny thing I have noticed is  that when I have mentioned the idea of hot milk tea to someone from one of the middle eastern non-milk tea cultures, they seem genuinely shocked, as if someone just told them they added ice cream to stir-fried broccoli, in fact it seems like they don’t really believe me and imagine that I, a traveler, somehow misunderstood. At the same time, if I mention drinking tea without milk but with mint,  to my South Indian friends, their noses crinkle and they make a face,  as if I just added chewing gum to unfinished tea.

The one thing, though,  I had never until now heard of is making tea with both mint and cardamom. Good hot milk tea. Until I went to a new Somali restaurant, here in San Diego. What is interesting about Somalia is that sitting on the “horn of Africa” jutting out into the  Indian Ocean and located just a hop, skip, and a jump from the Yemen and Arabia, its food is a fusion of the tastes and ingredients of  Africa, Arabia, and the Indian subcontinent.  And Italy. They love spaghetti, from their having been colonized by the Italians. Somalis use many Indian spices, but are also influenced by Arabian food, maybe especially Yemeni. Somalis have all kind of delicious chutney’s for example, red and green, with red chill and green chili and even with collard greens, that remind me of the Yemini s’hug, and make wonderful Biryani and of course, meat dishes.

It seems the Somali’s have taken the best of both worlds when it comes to tea. Perhaps they did not know the were “breaking the rules.” They take the hot Mint Tea of the Fertile Crescent, and add the hot milk and cardamom of the Indian sub-continent. Its an indescribably refreshing and  delicious combination, one I would have not expected. Here is a recipe. Adapt it to your own taste.

Somali Mint and Cardamom Tea

Ingredients

2 cups boiling water
Either ¾ of a tsp dried spearmint or 2 small sprigs fresh spearmint (any mint will do, but spearmint has the best fragrance for this tea.)
⅛ – 1/4  tsp cardamon powder, depending on how fresh or strong your cardamom is. Sometimes I feel like more.
2 tsp black or green tea. Somalis favor Kenyan Black tea for this drink. I made it with green, too, and it was lovely.
Honey or Sugar to your taste. Try it first without. With green tea, don’t sweeten.
½ cup milk heated to about 190 degrees, just short of boiling.

Recipe

Place your dry ingredients in a warmed teapot. (Warm your tea pot by putting some hot water in it and letting it sit a minute, then pour out).
Add water that is 10 or 15 seconds off of the boil
Let sit for 3-5 minutes.
Add hot milk and sweetener if desired
Serve in small cups.

Ayurveda.

In Ayurveda both cardamom and mint are digestive herbs that stimulate Agni digestive fire and lighten the food they are prepared with. As such they are excellent for Kapha and Vatta that tend to have weak and/or obstructed Agni. They are both sweet spices, and therefore pacify Vatta. Spearmint is warming, whereas Peppermint is cooling, so Spearmint is also good for Vatta and Kapha.

Pitta: An out of balance Pitta may find the spearmint irritating, especially if they have GERD. Try it and see. If you need to, delete it or try peppermint which is cooling. Use grass fed cows milk or organic Soy milk. Eden brand is excellent. . Don’t use honey. Raw sugar is ok if needed.
Kapha: Kaphas should avoid dairy, so make it without milk, it is still delicious. Try it then with Green tea, which is better for Kapha than Black. No sweetener.
Vatta: Sweet, warm, and heavy tastes pacify Vatta, so Vatta might like it with more milk and with warming honey. Use milk from grass fed cows or goats. Boil the milk to make it more digestible.

Copyright Eyton J. Shalom, L.Ac., May, 2013 San Diego CA  all rights reserved use with permission.

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