How to Commune with God (or, how to make Chai)

By BijaB

Pause for a moment and intend from your heart to offer your food with full love and devotion to God.

There are all kinds of rituals and practices that can get you to a deeper place. Even ones that help you commune with God. Cooking is one.

I believe there is a God of Small Feasts, and that some kind of providence is cultivated in cooking, and that God is found, or at least begins, in the kitchen. 

My conviction began the first time I was in Ahmedabad, India, when my friend Mallika Sarabhai brought me into what seemed to be a hidden room where the cooks were preparing food. I felt I had entered into some kind of sacred temple. Gold framed pictures of Ganesh, Laxmi and Saraswati sat on wooden shelves next to the innumerable jars of exotic spices like cumin, coriander, cardamom and asafetida, accompanied by large tin cans of milky-white rice, yellow-orange lentils and delicate black teas.

The mélange of mysterious cooking ingredients made the kitchen so blissfully fragrant and sensuous, that I seemed to go right into a meditative state. Within minutes of the mustard seeds entering the hot ghee, I was in aromatic ecstasy. All along, people scurried around in their bare feet on impeccably clean raw cement floors as if there was an on-going, elaborate alchemical feast being ritualized and cooked. And it was.

In India, cooking and eating is a communal activity that is influenced by a complex system of rituals, rules and beliefs. But everything about the experience is exotic, no matter if it’s just an everyday meal. Crackers and not just crackers, they are flaky lemon-flavored wafers laced with crushed peppercorns, and a milkshake is more like a frothy chilled yogurt drink sprinkled with sugar and rose water. The ingredients are always pure, the flavors sensational and the experience deeply transcendental. Cooking – as well as eating – is a means of expressing love and devotion for both the cook and the one who is enjoying the cooking. Every meal is a yagya, an occasion for celebration and communion with God.

The first time I tried communing with God as I cooked was in college when I followed a recipe for “chai” that I found on the cover of a record album by Bhagavan Das. Chai is the milky-spiced tea that is served all over India around tea time. These days, it’s almost a household word, since you can get it at Starbucks. But the correct term for the tea is actually “Maasala Chai,” or spiced tea, and the recipe is a precise combination of exotic herbs and spices, including a ritual to go with it. 

Here are the ingredients:

            1 teaspoon loose Darjeeling (1 tsp per cup of tea)

            2 cups cold pure water

            1 cup whole milk

            1/8 teaspoon cinnamon

            3 fresh cloves

            ¼ teaspoon fresh ginger, chopped or grated

            4 – 6 cardamom seeds or 1/8 teaspoon ground

            peppercorns (if you like it a little hot)

            sugar to taste

            (and….a secret ingredient!)

Before you begin, pause for a moment and intend from your heart to offer your food with full love and devotion to God. Hold this intention as you prepare the tea.

First, put the loose Darjeeling tea into the water and bring it to a boil. Add the cinnamon, cloves, cardamom seeds, fresh ginger and peppercorns, and allow the mixture to come to a boil. Add the milk and stir. Bring to a simmer again, watching carefully that the milk doesn’t boil over. While you’re doing this, mentally repeat a sacred mantra – like the Ganesha mantra for protection and removing obstacles:  Om Sri Maha Ganapataye Namaha – or chant a verse from an ancient text, or recite a poem or anything else that is meaningful to you. This blesses you and your kitchen, settles your mind, and, at least for a moment, eliminates all of the obstacles in your life at the same time you’re making your tea.

I remember that Bhagavan Das said to crack open the cardamom pods in your mouth and then utter the word, “Swa-ha!” (I offer to the higher realms) as you spit the seeds into the tea. I’m not sure I’d recommend spitting the seeds into the tea unless you’re the only one drinking it. So you might just sprinkle in an eighth of a teaspoon of cardamom powder instead.

While I was in India, I also learned about a secret ingredient – mint leaves – fresh ones if you can. You throw them in at the last minute right before the milk. Add the mint leaves and sugar to taste, then let the entire mixture simmer for another minute or so. Remove from the heat and strain when serving. This makes four cups of tea.

In the end, your tea should look exactly like the muddy river of the Ganges – kind of a rich, milky brown color with leaves and organic matter floating around. Regardless of what this sounds like, it’s the best “maasala chai” you’ll ever drink. And you can’t buy it like this in the stores. Besides, it’s blessed. But you’ve got to use whole milk, quality tea, and sugar not honey – and you can’t forget the fresh mint leaves or the chanting, otherwise, you’ll miss the whole point.

This is one of my favorite recipes for communing with God. If you’re happy with the way this turns out, try using some similar intentions, prayers and chants every time you prepare your food, and cooking will become a deeply spiritual experience.

Got any spiritual cooking stories to share? Stay in touch by visiting my contact page!

(Photo: BijaB - Ahmedabad, India, January 2015)

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