In Dining

Experience authentic Indian culture every Tuesday morning at The Pfister.

The Pfister Narrator invites you for free chai, cookies, henna

It's time for Dining Month, presented by Deer District and its spooky Halloween-themed alter ego, Fear District. Throughout the month of October, we'll be serving up fun and fascinating content about all things food. The signature dish, however, is our 2019 Best of Dining poll, who's winners we will dish out all month long. Get hungry, Milwaukee!

Bela Roongta, the current Pfister Narrator (writer-in-residence at the Pfister Hotel), is 100 percent Indian, and yet, it wasn't until she was an adult that she really connected with her roots.

Roongta was born to Indian parents in Africa and shortly after the family moved to London for eight years. They then migrated to the United States, first to Cleveland and then to Houston. Growing up, Roongta says she has the "typical immigrant story" of wanting to experience American culture rather than Indian. But she does have one strong memory of Indian culture from her childhood: she remembers her mom often made chai.

"I didn't want to eat Indian food when I was a kid, I wanted (American food) like McDonald's and Jack-in-the-Box," says Roongta. "But I always loved chai."

Roongta came to the Midwest to attend law school in Iowa and, at the age of 25, to practice law in Milwaukee. In 2000, after six years working as an attorney, Roongta decided to leave her firm and live in India for six months.

During this time, Roongta connected with her Indian family and heritage for the first time. She learned a lot about herself and her family's country of origin – including how to make a proper cup of chai.

"I don't think my mom wanted my sister or I to feel like it was expected of us to cook or spend a lot of time in the kitchen, so she didn't teach us," says Roongta. "So I learned in India. And now I make it for my own kids and for my friends."

While living in India, Roongta also learned how to apply henna, temporary designs drawn on the skin. "The trip changed my life in so many ways," she says. "It definitely started my artist career."

Roongta is the owner of Belatees, a business that sells apparel embossed with her hand-drawn, henna-inspired artwork. She also is a devoted writer and so when she heard about the Pfister Narrator position, her application included a strong writing portion, but also the offer of a weekly chai and henna event as a way to share her passion for Indian culture and to engage with the guests and the community.

Roongta hosts chai and henna every Tuesday in the Pfister Hotel Lobby from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. She encourages anyone interested in trying chai – as well as a homemade vanilla shortbread cookie – to stop by and say hi. If someone is interested in having henna applied they should contact her a day or so before the Tuesday event and let her know so she brings the henna supplies.

"So far, I've met some wonderful people, but some are shy about trying chai if they haven't had it before," says Roongta. "But 99.9 percent of people are willing to start with a cookie – who doesn't love a shortbread cookie? – and then ease into the chai."

Roongta makes the chai herself in The Pfister Hotel kitchen every Tuesday morning with the assistance of a couple of kitchen employees. One of the employees starts boiling 30 cups of water before Roongta arrives, and then when she gets there she chops and mashes the ginger in a mortar and pestle, counts out 120 whole cardamon pods and 25 tea bags. She adds it all to the boiling water and after a minute or two, adds the milk.

"I add the milk by sight. I add enough until the chai is about the same as my skin color," she says.

Roongta encourages guests to add a spoonful of sugar after the cup is poured, but it's not a mandatory ingredient – especially for authentic chai. "Starbucks chai – and other pre-made chais – are very sweet. My chai is ginger forward and the sugar is there, but just to combine with the other flavors, not overpower them."

Sound like a lovely way to spend a Tuesday morning? It really is. Roongta is as good of a listener as she is a converser and her willingness to share her talents is a reflection of her kind spirit.

"I love sharing my chai and henna. It's such an awesome fit here at The Pfister," says Roongta. "Everyone is invited to come visit me. Just stop by for a cup of chai, maybe get a henna."

Contact Bela at belasureshroongta@gmail.com in advance if you are interested in getting a henna with your chai.


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