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In new book, TikTok star CrossCultureKev shares 'The Way of Chai'

Kevin Wilson, known online as crossculturekev. (Courtesy)
Kevin Wilson, known online as crossculturekev. (Courtesy)

Kevin Wilson, better known as crossculturekev on TikTok and Instagram, has built up a loyal following spreading the word about chai.

For Wilson, chai — the loose-leaf black tea infused with spices and often combined with milk — is something to be tended to with love and attentiveness; It’s the South Asian drink of hospitality. He shares recipes, stories of his and his family’s lives and the often fraught history of tea production in his new book, “The Way of Chai.”

The book features 16 delicious chai recipes, accompanied by a brief meditation on how a certain facet of chai offers a window into a life that is purposeful, hopeful and beautiful.

As Wilson wrote the book during the pandemic, he realized people needed ways to meaningfully express care. Chai — a beverage that links together his family, culture and spirituality — gave him an opportunity.

“Through my duets on TikTok, people recognized that I was a voice where they can go to to get some calm during their day. And so I kind of channeled that energy into writing this book,” he says. “And the more I went into chai, I realized that there were just so many junctions in which we can stop and pause and reflect on our lives.”

The cover of “The Way of Chai: Recipes for a More Meaningful Life.” (Courtesy)

Book excerpt: ‘The Way of Chai’

By Kevin Wilson

Kevin’s signature chai

Serves 2

Ingredients

  • 4 green cardamom pods
  • 1 (2-inch) cinnamon stick
  • ½ cup filtered water
  • 1½ teaspoons loose leaf
  • Ceylon BOPF black tea
  • ½ cup full-fat milk
  • ½ cup full-fat evaporated milk
  • 1 teaspoon fresh crushed ginger
  • 4 tablespoons sweetened condensed milk
  • Pinch of salt


Method

  • Crush the cardamom and cinnamon with a mortar and pestle and set aside.
  • In a medium pot, heat the water over medium heat.
  • When you see small bubbles at the bottom of the pot, add the tea.
  • When the water comes to a boil, keep stirring and aerating for 30 seconds. Then add the full-fat milk and evaporated milk.
  • Add the crushed spices and ginger. Stir.
  • When the tea rises to the top of the pot, turn the heat off.
  • Pour the sweetened condensed milk into a pitcher. Strain the tea into the pitcher through a fine-mesh strainer. Stir vigorously so that all the condensed milk dissolves completely.
  • Aerate the tea by transferring it between the pot and the pitcher a few times or by using an electric frother, till you see a foam appearing on the surface of the tea.
  • Pour the tea into cups and divide the pinch of salt between them. Serve and enjoy!


Can you remember your best cup of chai?

I remember mine like it was yesterday.

July 14, 2017. It had been just five days since Elynn and I had said “I do” to each other during our wedding in Sri Lanka. We were now at the Madulkelle Tea and Eco Lodge, spending our honeymoon in our own private yurt situated among cloud for- ests. The views of the tea plantations from our location were stunning. Sunrays refracting through the gentle morning mists painted the landscape with soothing shades of green. The after-noon air was dewy, infused with my favorite smell of petrichor emanating from the rain-soaked soil.

That morning, we walked over to the main lodge, where an array of Sri Lankan and Western delectables were being served. It was there that we were introduced to Ajith—a forty-something, gentle man with a kind smile—who was our server. He asked us if we wanted something to drink before our meal, to which both of us said in unison, “Tea, please!” A few minutes later, Ajith arrived with two cups of tea—one without dairy for Elynn and a regular one for me. He promptly left to attend to the other guests and to give us some time to decide on our order.

When I looked at the tea, I knew it was going to be good. The color was just right. A good bit of foam on the top. The aromatic steam warmed our faces. I took a sip.

Oh.

My. Goodness.

I’ve had thethani for as long as I can remember. But never like this.

I almost jumped out of my chair when Ajith came back to get our order. I begged him to tell me how he made it. With his shy but surprised disposition, typical of servers in boutique hotels who are approached by “suddhas”* with questions, Ajith de- scribed how he used the BOPF tea dust from the Madulkelle estate, made a roux from full-fat milk powder and sugar, poured the strained tea into that mix, aerated it a few times, and then poured it into an ornate porcelain cup.

No. It’s too simple, I thought. He’s hiding a secret technique or

ingredient. There’s no way.

After badgering him for more details, I was disappointed when Ajith told me that that was it. Because his process was very similar to how I usually make my own Lankan tea, I wondered if it was maybe the quality of the local Madulkelle tea. Maybe it was the type of sugar he used? Maybe it was his hardware? But there was nothing new about Ajith’s technique that I hadn’t done before.

The more I savored the tea, wishing this experience would never end, the more I realized something else that I might have

* “Foreigners,” or more specifically “whites.” While I’m too melanated to be considered one, the fact that I’m married to Elynn, an American, in addition to my broken Sinhala, might have caused Ajith to put me in this category missed in my investigation. It wasn’t a method or a technique. It wasn’t the tea. It wasn’t the ingredients.

It wasn’t just how it had been made. It was who I was having it with.

This was the first time I was sharing tea with Elynn as her husband.

After knowing her for eight years, dating long distance for more than four years, enduring all sorts of ups and downs in our relationship, and learning to appreciate our cultural differences and their blessings, sharing this chai with my life partner felt surreal and extraordinary—like arriving at an oasis that we missed on the map because we were too focused on survival. When you’re at the brink, choosing next steps over best steps, prioritizing endurance over enjoyment, the things that are supposed to simply sustain you end up being the things that transform you.

For the hungry, food becomes sacred. For the thirsty, drink becomes spiritual.

On that beautiful morning, as the realization that we were never going to say goodbye slowly settled in, perhaps more capacity in my being opened up, activating sensory receptors that might have been dormant until that moment. In the presence of loving community, a simple milk tea transformed itself into a muse that unlocked a new era of meaning in our lives.

Chai reminds us that while a good brew can flavor your senses, good community can flavor your life. It also reminds us that while all of us attempt to make ourselves, none of us are really “self-made.” I am who I am because of the communities I’ve been a part of. You are who you are because of the people you have shared your life with—whether they are people who’ve had your best interests at heart or those who have imposed their stories onto you. Our characters are ultimately a reaction to, and a conglomeration of, our communities.

But in order to realize the importance of community, to truly understand the value of the people who have nurtured your life, you must first recognize the sacredness of your story. This is ultimately why I put pen to paper to write this book and invite you into my home for chai—to help you, my bestea, remember, even for a moment, why your story particularly matters in this ongoing, unfolding history of our collective humanity.

The terroir of chai is a meditation on the significance of your character. It’s a reminder that you are not an isolated island but a continent—nourishing, and being nourished by, the world around you.

The leaves of chai remind you of your capacity for empathy, to understand and love the “other.”

The labor that went into making your chai is a reminder that gratitude is not a passive mood that exists purely as a kind of “consciousness,” but an active mode that aligns with your moral bent toward justice.

The drying process of chai reminds you that the liminal spaces you find yourself in are not limited spaces but limitless spaces where your being is sensitized to new possibilities for flourishing.

The recipes of chai show you that you can achieve true mastery not only by pursuing a love of habits but by cultivating habits of love.

The thirst satiated, and created, by chai is a meditation on the depth of your desires and the breadth of their impact.

The crushing of the spices reminds you that although the painful experiences of your life have broken you in different places, you, bestea, are not broken.

The cup that holds your chai signifies that the best kind of life is not lived by pursuing unrestricted purpose but by incorporating purposeful constraints.

The heat that made your chai is a reminder of how your attention has shaped, and continues to shape, your story.

The boiling process of chai reminds you that your story is in progress. That you are not worthless. You are just steeping.

The wait for chai shows you the importance of rest—a reminder that you are not a human “doing” but a human being.

The foam on top of your chai that comes as a result of aeration represents the enduring nature of your identity despite its dis-placements and disorientations.

The pouring of chai reminds you that the flavors of your story are best realized when you pour yourself into others through service.

The first taste of your chai reminds you of the value of your memories and how they can help you face the challenges of your future.

The filtered grounds of chai can remind you that grief is but love that is yearning for home, that the brutality of death can co-exist with the possibility of new hope.


From “The Way of Chai” by Kevin Wilson, published by TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2023 Kevin Wilson.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.