You all know about my penchant for tea. Just about any tea. And Kashmiris have many. Kahva or Mogul Chai is now almost as well known as the regular chai we drink everyday. There is another, not seen or heard outside the community, but as loved by us Kashmiris.
Not so long ago even Kahva was unfamiliar and strange to the North Indian palate here in Delhi; the Kahva my mother-in-law offered as a special treat to her kitty-party buddies twenty years ago did not generate much enthusiasm and made me wary of offering shir chai to anyone but family.
A typical family get-together will begin with rounds of Kahva as we wait for the folk to gather. There may be some matthi or pastry puffs or tchot (nan-like leavened flat bread) that someone is sure to have brought along. Then we will all proceed to stuff ourselves to the gills on the traditional fare that is mandatory at a Kashmiri gathering. It may seem repetitive to TH but we never tire of our rogan josh (curried mutton) or mutsch or kaliya or yakhni or haak or monjji or dum olu or panir or nadur (lotus stem) or palak (spinach). Yes, that is pretty much the standard menu you will find at any Kashmiri party. After having just finished the richest meal imaginable, we will all likely say yes to a cup of this salty milky tea. In fact, the party isn’t over till we do. Of course, there are always a few poor souls who will decline in favour of “Lipton Chai” aka regular Indian black tea that the entire country loves to drink.
Yet when Deepa Kamath, who enjoys making off-beat documentaries for NDTV, wanted to film me in the kitchen for her urban living, food and memory associations, I just could not get into the elaborate cooking mode. I offered her a cup of shir chai. Shir chai, also called noon (Kashmiri for salt) chai, is one unusual cup of tea. As much as I may try to describe it, the taste will still come as a surprise for the first-timer. The colour, a pretty strawberry-milk shake-pink, does nothing to prepare you for the taste either. You might be better prepared if you think of it as a soup rather than a tea. But it is a soup that is served at the end of the meal! Never mind the dollop of malai (clotted cream) on top, it is believed to have digestive properties (possibly because of that pinch of soda-bi-carb in it) and is just the antidote to the rich meal it usually follows.
Every sip of this strange but familiar tea transports me back to summer hols in Srinagar. It is the taste of leisurely meals and lazy afternoons, of gazing out of the wooden shuttered windows of my grandfather’s house. It is the sight of grandmothers quaffing on the tea leaves at the bottom after the tea was drunk, and aunts taking a moment from the daily housework (no maids in Srinagar!). It is also the taste and mark of a unique identity, another little thing that points towards my Kashmiri heritage.
But these profundities eluded me at the time of my chat with Deepa about food and its meaning! All the gyan I could’ve shared with the viewers… 😀 (Telecast of the documentary Feasting, Fasting, NDTV 24X7, Sat, Jun 5, 2010, 7:30pm, Repeat telecast Sun 4:30pm).
Anyway, here is the recipe for another unusual cup of tea. But, for those who have hung on to tiny packages of a special green tea, here’s your chance! For those of you who love to try strange foods, the tea leaves are available at many stores in INA Market, Delhi; I source mine along with most other Kashmiri ingredients from Durga Store. At a pinch, you can also substitute with kahva (gunpowder) tea leaves.
Shir Chai/ Noon Chai
(Kashmiri Salted Tea)
Makes 3 cups of tea
to prepare the concentrate
1 level tsp of shir chai leaves
3/4 C water
pinch of soda-bi-carb
2 C water
1 C milk
salt to taste
1 green cardamom, bruised
pinch of cinnamon
ground walnuts to garnish (optional)
malai (clotted cream) to top (optional)
In a stainless steel pan combine water, tea leaves, and soda-bi-carb. Bring to boil. Simmer till the liquid is reduced to 1/4th the original quantity. You will now have a dark strong concentrate. Add the remaining ingredients (except the walnut garnish and clotted cream). When it starts to boil, turn the heat down and let it simmer for a couple of minutes. Remove from heat. Like Kahva, shir chai is also never strained. If you dislike tea leaves floating in your tea just wait a minute or two to allow the leaves to settle to the bottom and decant the tea into serving cups to which you may add a small amount of finely chopped walnuts. Top with a spoonful of malai and relish in something truly unique.
The tea is usually served with telvur, very similar to a bagel, or even the sweet roth. Sometimes a portion of plain unsweetened feni (a fried delicacy available at some sweetmeat shops in North India) is added to a cup to make a very filling afternoon snack.
Kashmiri Pandits never used china and tea was traditionally served in small metal bowls called khos made from kansa, a special alloy. I have one that was gifted to me by my mum’s elder sister. Thank you, maasi.