To my young 13 year old teenage eyes, Chae Wan’s mother was a formidable woman. She didn’t say much, rarely smiled, and only nodded her head in recognition of my greeting as I entered her home. She would wait in the hallway, watching quietly as I removed my shoes near the door and moved quickly into Chae Wan’s room. After that, we were left to our own devices and snacks and drinks were brought in by Chae Wan. I didn’t feel like I had the liberty, or rather the permission, to move around the house freely. I know this makes her mum sound inhospitable but I suspect the language and culture barrier added to my perceived gravitas of the situation.
I knew Chae Wan from school (she was a year ahead), but we didn’t get talking until my sister and I started taking the bus and so did she. On that fateful day, the only free seat was next to me. Our conversation began with my Sony Walkman (remember those?) and Michael Jackson. I was a social misfit; didn’t quite belong in amongst my classmates somehow, though they were lovely girls. Chae Wan, being a Korean in a Catholic Indian school, was a misfit also, perhaps for more obvious reasons. It was inevitable, that with such feelings, we found each other a kind of kindred soul. After a while, we were inseparable. Chae had by far, the warmest, most naturally generous heart I had encountered thus far. I was a better teenager than I was destined to be due to her influence. She also introduced me to anime, a Japanese style of drawing, at which she excelled. She encouraged my writing, singing and chalk sketches. Chae also had the most beautiful, clear-as-a-bell singing voice. When I listen to Eva Cassidy, Chae Wan flashes in my mind.
It took months of my visits and Chae’s to mine, for her mother to slowly warm to me. Our parents never met; there weren’t requests on either side and we didn’t seem to give our respective folks any reason to warrant an introduction. And then came an invite for me to join Chae’s family for a barbecue at the Airport Road park in Abu Dhabi. I remember being extremely pleased, nervous yet happy, more so with this invitation over any other. I was always really respectful towards her mum but this invite made me feel, that she might just like me, just a wee bit!
My father drove me over to the park and we walked silently together to a mutually agreed upon spot. It was under a generously sized palm tree, in between wavy, bricked paths, with impatient blossoms lining the edge of the grass on either side, all bright magenta, as happy as I was. There, her family all sat and my father introduced himself to Chae’s parents and vice versa, done quietly with lots of smiles. Dad left, I watched him walk away while I sat down on my knees as they were. I glanced up to see her mum pouring an amber coloured, cloudy liquid from a large jug into a tall glass, filled to the brim with ice. Holding the glass in her right hand and resting it on her left palm, she swivelled around gracefully, looked at me with the most radiant smile and with small, sharp nods of her head, beckoned me to take the drink. That most welcome drink was Iced Tea and my first ever sampling of it. I read about it in books, along with ginger beer and wondered what they both tasted like. On such a hot afternoon as that was, the rush of cold, sweet, liquid running down a throat parched partly by heat and mostly by nerves, was simply heavenly. I remember taking a large swig and after that went down, I couldn’t seem to stop. I was halfway through the tumbler before I came up for breath. Chae asked me something and as I answered, her mother refilled my glass. It was never more than half empty after that.
I recall barbecued beef, spicy sauces (gojuchang), soy sauce and the explosive, incredibly delicious sensation that was kimchi. I think I told her dad it kind of reminded me of Indian pickles! They had chopsticks but to be hospitable, they brought cutlery too for my benefit. I couldn’t have won points faster in their estimation than at the moment I picked up the chopsticks and proceeded to use it rather creditably (thanks mum and dad!). I remember distinctly though, the oddity that was sticky rice. Being a daily rice eater, this soft, sticky, clumped up, fat grained rice was a strange anomaly! I quickly appreciated its merits when dealing with chopsticks! Most of the afternoon is a blur in my memory, like trying to focus on something in the distance, while peering through the smoky haze, rising from the barbecue. There were glints of light slicing through the spaces of the palm leaves overhead, which Chae and I were staring at above our heads, lying on the cool grass, chatting with full, satisfied bellies. To this day, though the details are lost in time, the thought of that afternoon brings to mind the most heart warming feelings.
Maybe it’s nostalgia that taints the tastebuds, but all the recipes I tried for Iced Tea pale into watery, under flavoured insignificance by comparison to the one prepared by Chae’s mum’s hands. I have argued with myself that it’s pretty much nigh on impossible to replicate the exact taste. Or rather, the exact feeling. One night, bored, I ventured onto Delia Smith’s website, which I have to admit, is a place I rarely visit. One link lead to another and there was an Iced Tea recipe. I made it and am happy to say that the search is pretty much over. I am aware it will in all likely hood, be nothing like the original. But on first taste, I knew I really, really loved it and now, this was going to be my go-to recipe.
A good squeeze of citrus juice really makes this one sing. It’s also heavily infused with the freshness of mint, which likens it to the Arabic sweet mint tea that I adore. I like my Iced Tea sweet, no doubt a direct influence of my first education on the matter. I serve a simple sugar syrup alongside for those who want it a bit sweeter. On a hot day, there is very little else as refreshing as a tall ice filled glass of a good iced tea, lemon and orange slices bobbing happily on the surface.
We lost contact after we moved to our respective countries for university. Suddenly, the long, dedicated letters stopped arriving from Seoul. I have tried all the social media ways to find her but it’s an ongoing search. If she were to ever find her way here, I want Chae to know, that I have not forgotten. I remember, still.