I’m the kind of creature of habit who often goes to the same place for food or drink if I’ve found something good there. I’m always willing to try something new, but if all else fails I know there are certain places on the Melbourne map where signature dishes or drinks will be ready for degustation.
I am a chai fiend, a connoisseur, and a maniac for the Indian spiced tea with honey and soy milk; sorry, but I can’t drink the traditional milk because of my lactose intolerance. I began drinking chai on a daily basis long before it became popular in cafes and coffee shops. The first time I ever tasted it was at the Nimbin Mardi Grass festival where I was visiting to experience strange herbs, not spices. One morning at daybreak a monkish Hari Krishna-looking man came round to my tent calling out the fateful words, ‘Chai, chai tea, chai tea, great way to start the day!’
Bleary-eyed for more reasons than simple lack of sleep, I paid the two dollars and tasted the cup of spicy soy milkiness. Needless to say I’ve never turned back to my old habits of Earl Grey or English Breakfast. I’ve now sampled chai all over the globe, and had an extensive range of experiences ranging from the nearly instant vomit variety to the ecstatic epiphany type.
After spending a fair amount of time sampling chais around various areas of Melbourne, I happened upon the Degraves Espresso Bar in the tiny alley called Degraves Street near Flinders Street train station. This area has a plethora of cafes, restaurants and eateries, all constructed in a European style with tables outside so people can have a chat whilst watching the many different kinds of human walk by.
I ordered a soy chai for two with honey (I wasn’t alone) and was presented with a massive teapot full of frothy goodness. It seems to be an unwritten rule amongst Degraves Espresso workers that skin must be inked if you are to work there; maybe it’s a subtle form of anti-discrimination. ‘Sorry you don’t have any tats, we don’t trust your kind here.’ My heavily tattooed waitress told me they made their own chai from scratch, a rare commodity in a city strewn with powdered chai, weak tea bags and pre-packaged mixes.
(Thanks to the Alaskan Dude’s Photostream for use of this image via Creative Commons.)
The teapot, which cost $6.20, provided around eight full cups of tea, but it wasn’t the cumulative caffeine affect that made an impression on me; it was the chai. I’ve probably been back there three hundred times, and I can honestly report that the quality of the tea, in terms of flavour, texture and temperature, rarely wavers from the high water mark set on that first auspicious day.
Using a traditional honey dipper (you know, the ridged wooden ball on a stick) I drop spoonfuls of amber glory into the cinnamon, ginger, cloves and touch of aniseed black tea soymilk mixture. Having made its indelible mark on my soul, I know if fate is compassionate I will be sitting at one of these vintage, cramped hotchpotch art deco tables with blaring pop, rock, jazz or hip-hop tunes filling my ears again soon. The food’s pretty good too…
(Thanks to David Light Orchard’s Photostream for the use of this image via Creative Commons.)