Tea in the Afternoon

Shir Chai 01

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 chaiShir 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.

Shir Chai

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 Food: 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
(shir chai with home-made sour dough bread using starter made from scratch!)

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.


Published by Anita

A self professed urban ecologist!

47 thoughts on “Tea in the Afternoon

  1. missed your blog posts… pls do tell us when it will be telecast so we can watch you in action.

    I have missed writing too!
    Hope you were able to catch the telecast.

  2. I have been following you for quite some time and finally entered your comment page. this one is a lovely read. loved to know about this noon chai. you know we Bengalis also call salt noon and traditionally we use a lot of Kansa. between please let us know the telecast time of the program.

    Isn’t it amazing that these two cultures share so much in common?
    I hope you caught the documentary!

  3. With Katlam … Sheer Bliss (pun unintended) 😀

    😀 Yes, with katlam as well! Oh those blissful days…

  4. What a beautiful post Anita! You transported me to Sringar where I have never been for a minute.

    🙂 Thanks, Shankari. Am glad the nostalgia makes it through.

  5. Yay! TV star! Since I don’t have any Indian channels, you’re going to have to get hold of the clip, upload it to Youtube and send me the link. No excuses!

    I thought it was only the Assamese who added salt to their tea. Where are the shir chai leaves grown? And, of course, I want the botanical name, too.

    Why isn’t your tea ever strained?

    Now, tell me if it is possible to put it on Youtube from the video that NDTV has on their site?
    What – you don’t already know all the answers?! I’ll be damned…

    We are the laziest people around, or so it would seem! No patience for these fine civilities like straining chai, or chopping fine….

  6. Lovely post! And i echo Manisha, please, please share the clip of the program. Noon chai, but without cream, that’s what i love :).

    What, Musical – I thought you would be traditional and love it malai-mar-ke!

  7. Seems I posted just in time! The telecast is this weekend: Fasting and Feasting, NDTV 24×7, Saturday – 7:30 pm, Sun (repeat telecast) – 4:30pm.

  8. Anita

    Will I someway be able to view your broadcast on NDTV away over in Canada, where I live

    So interesting to read about your tea
    Wish I knew someone here in my part of the country, Indian who could hlep me experience some of the food you prepare

    I hope you were able to check the link posted by Deepa, the film maker.

  9. I was so sad to come to the end of that post- that was so nice to hear about the memories that you have which are attached to drinking shir chai- are the tea leaves remaining in the cup used for fortune-telling? And now I know exactly how it might be best enjoyed (yes, I’m thinking of giving it another chance!): after stuffing oneself from a Kashmiri smorgasbord…I can do that! 😉

    The leaves do not remain at the bottom for long! Seen old ladies quaff and suck and spit!!
    So, you tried it once already?!

    1. Yes, a Kashmiri friend once sent me some- I still have some remaining , in fact- with specific instructions- quite similar to what you’ve posted here- on how to brew it properly. It came out blush-pink- much like yours- but it was not the noon that disturbed my palate, rather, it was the sheer part that I found displeasure in: you see, I am not a fan of milk unless it is highly-contaminated with sugar, or soured beyond recognition; then, I love it. However, I don’t think this would work with buttermilk. But being the good sport that I am, I finished the cup, and vowed that I would not refuse a cup were it offered me.

      Are you certain that that these are green leaves and not semi-fermented? They look semi-fermented. Just asking.

      Give it another shot this time – maybe thinking ‘soup’ will make it go down easier since adding sugar will not be right?

      I am not sure whether that is partially fermented or not. I tried to look up ‘gunpowder tea’ but all I could find that they are green or oolong. Are oolongs partially fermented?

      1. Yes indeed! Oolong is semi/partially-fermented! I’ve always liked it- retains some of the brightness of green along with some depth from the break-down.

        I think if I brew it double-or-triple-strength so that the milkiness is covered up I would fare better- would that be allowed or would I lose a finger or two? 😀

        I doubt if it is possible to over-brew shir chai! So go ahead, let’s see how you fare. You can also adjust the milk ratio to suit your taste; the kind that simmers in the samovar all day and is drunk by farmhands is low on milk…they just keep adding water and salt!

  10. For all those who can’t see it, youtube zindabad – Anita really miss your posts, such lovely insights into your culture! And tea is sure a most unusual colour 🙂 and salty to boot-would love to try it sometime.

    See if you can find some ‘gunpowder’ tea where you are or during your travels around the country and abroad!

  11. I want to try this. I think I will begin my culinary journey in India (Which my husband and I plan to do as a travel plan in future) in your house first! 🙂

    I love your blog precisely because of these little peeks into a completely ‘hidden’ culture and something we should all be able to appreciate.

    Thank you, Anita.

    😀 We can start at my place and then can I join in your journey?!

  12. Sounds interesting. If I’m not mistaken, salty teas are quite popular in the more Western parts of Asia with nomadic tribes. And it makes a lot of sense in warmer climates.

    Kashmiri cuisine has been greatly influenced by Western/Central Asia and I have little doubt that that is how we got this unique salted tea!

  13. Hey Anita, it’s very good to see you back! 🙂 Aah…I’m tea lover but never have had this shir chai yet. You now become TV star! woo..hoo..:D I really wish to see on TV program. I love the 3rd pic with home-made bread. btw, sometimes I confuse that you’re Maharastrian or Kashmiri. Now, it’s clear. Blame to ur recipe varieties!!! 😀
    Oh! I remember we (my grandma and mom) have huge treasure of Kansa vessels in India. 🙂

    Sometimes, I get confused myself 😉

    I have to now start collecting some of those old vessels if I can find…

  14. Anita, you looked marvelous in your TV appearance- just how I pictured you! [clap clap clap] And… you have such an artful way of throwing back your fluffy, new coif as you give your grape-vines a good soaking!

    Is that a standard Kashmiri token of hospitality? 😀

    Excellent report, Deepa; I enjoyed every minute!

    😉 Thanks, Pel! I will watch again to see what you mean about the stylish action!

  15. Have heard of a salted tea drunk in Tibet, but didn’t know it was drunk in Kashmir too. Well, I learn something new about Indian food everyday, it seems. 🙂
    Saw the video too.

    Tibeti, Ladakhi salted teas have butter too!

    1. Salty tea is taken in Himachal also with ghee or butter. Not sure whether leaves are same as Kashmiri Salt tea.

      I must find out more about this tea!

  16. Thanks for that wonderful post – I am not a tea drinker (or a coffee drinker) but I have a feeling I might just like this (but hold the malai please!!). or may be its an acquired taste….

    Missed the telecast unfortunately, and I do hope you are able to upload it on You Tube if possible, so we can all see our very own TV star 🙂

    Thanks for posting this lovely post – so interesting and informative. Which is why in my latest post, I have said I am so sure that local and regional cuisine will not die an early death – we have too many passionate foodies!

    Some things are just environmental conditioning! 🙂
    You can view it using the link Deepa has posted in her comment. If Manisha can tell me how, I could put it on You Tube and upload it here…

    There’s too many of us to let a good thing die – we will resurrect it from the ashes!

  17. where did u go off to? long time!!
    And i thought the kahva from my place was unique!! we put eggs in the tea and drink it !
    will i like this? the foodie in me is tempting em to make it, can i make it green tea, u say?

    Just work that is keeping me away from here! So, I guess, a good reason!

    I never heard of eggs in tea!! Till today, that is. Try with any green tea that is not perfumed; should work.

  18. You’ve a lovely blog! Sorry, I had to delurk to say it should be “palate” and not “palette” in the context of your post. Terribly sorry! I enjoy your posts even though I’m not a chai lover.

    Thanks f, for the delurk! I hate spelling mistakes and this one escaped not just me but a very sharp ‘editor’ that I have! I am obviously too occupied with my clients and colour ‘palettes!’ 🙂

  19. My connection with your blog, Anita has come a full circle. I came upon Mad Tea Party researching about tea for a journal entry.
    Tea in the afternoon is the sigh which my mother took drinking that first sip after her 3:00pm power nap.It is also the expectation of relief of my world weary father. It is the thrill of stealing Marie biscuits from the tea tray.It is the pause of endless chatter of all the auntijis. It is the resolution of conflicts amongst maasijis. I miss that here in NJ . I have wowed never to have my afternnon cuppa in a marketing souvenir mug after looking at the beautiful visuals and make the afternoon tea a tradition/memory for my daughter.Thanks for bringing Delhi back to me so far away!

    Eloquently put, Viji! That cupful of brew is really something!
    Thanks for reading!

    1. Truly loved Shir chai. Makes up for endless almost tasteless green tea bag cuppas, I consume during the day. A few friends just did not like it. I will serve it in soup bowls with feni in it next time. Thanks

      Trust us to extract not just flavour but also colour from the green teas! In a soup bowl with feni they will at least not be expecting tea!
      What kind of tea did you use? Did it deliver on the colour?

      With feni it makes a great afternoon snack – the perfect stuff to bond with daughters or moms or aunts!

      1. Shhh… secret stash from Roopak/Madan Stores in Karol Bagh New Delhi.Delivered on color and taste
        the phrase stash of tea led me to this site of tea history http://ftp.stashtea.com/facts.htm. Recently directed a Hindi play for children connecting Indian Salt Satyaghray (Dandi march)with American Boston Tea Party. Everbody kept on saying “chai aur shakar” , ab “chai aur namak(noon)” ka bhi wasta hai bhai.

        Good that the leaves are available more readily that I thought! You must have a palate like mine that relishes out-of-the-ordinary to have liked this tea!

        You, a theater person? Or a school teacher bringing History to life – much needed! How I wish History would be made as interesting as it really is so that our children could learn from it!

  20. Re: “I doubt if it is possible to over-brew shir chai! So go ahead, let’s see how you fare. You can also adjust the milk ratio to suit your taste; the kind that simmers in the samovar all day and is drunk by farmhands is low on milk…they just keep adding water and salt!”

    That makes me think of the one and only time I was talked into helping out two sons of a farmer unload a truckful of hay- you know, the high-stacked, barely-contained-by-side-supports-of-metal-rods on a flat-bed that go wobbling down the rural roads? I wasn’t dressed for the job, nor was I accustomed to such demanding physical labor! Egads, those hearty folk earn their dinner! But no tea did they offer- beer it was! 🙂

    But I am now curious about the English custom- and of any who adopted it in turn- of only letting the leaves steep briefly in scalding water. Is it just me or does that seem wasteful of the leaves’ potential?

    Beer is to America what tea is to India! But tea is the one with the anti-oxidants… 😉
    You have those high-stacked trucks that wobble down rural roads?! You should see ours!
    @ the English custom – I think Asians got onto the potential quite early on and concocted all kinds of ‘cooked’ chai!

  21. Hello Anita, I saw you on the TV show online. I am a great fan of your blog and the home style recipes featured here. Loved watching the author of my favourite blog on TV. Wishing you lots of blogging, success and good luck..

    Thanks, Bhuvana, for reading and watching! A blog, especially this one, is nothing without its readers!

  22. Thanks or your sweet words Anita, the kansa vessel eatured in your post got me nostalgic, my nani used to talk about the coffee they used to have in such kansa tumblers. This coffee used to be made using jaggery as a sweetener and maybe a hint of dry ginger at times. This was sometime during WW II when sugar was rationed.

    Ah…that is the intention of most of the writing here – to connect with memories!

  23. The cashmeri salted tea sounds interesting! I have to try this. I’m glad I find your blog! We love indian food. Thanks for sharing.

    Strange yet interesting…

  24. I hadn’t been to your blog in a long time and was feeling so bad I missed you on TV. Just watched the link online..thanks for posting the link 🙂 Was fun to get a peek into the kitchen and the terrace garden – only seen it in pics on the blog – the gulmohar tree. You are just as normal (in a nice way) as I thought you would be.

  25. Say it co incident or ‘right time at place’
    I am watching this program Secret Lives on NDTV 24X7, Tikkoo is explaining me about this tea and this blog, and on my laptop this page is opened 🙂
    I am here to stay.

    Happy coincidence! 🙂

  26. How lovely you write! I probably wouldn’t dare try the salted tea myself unless I taste an authentic version first, which, is very unlikely to happen.

    Hmm. Hunt out a Kashmiri friend! 🙂

  27. I have to admit that the first mention of the tea being salted and served with clotted cream didn’t appeal to me but as i saw the clip, it got interesting. Now after reading the post entirely i cannot wait to have this, perhaps on my next visit there, i’ll get a hold of those tea leaves. Love your blog Anita and as someone said, you look and act exactly like i envisioned, very elegant i must say.

    Thanks, Jaya, for the encouragement!
    Even Deepa, at first, had looked a bit disappointed that all I was going to do was make tea! But she was happy to find it was not just any old cuppa and involved quite a few steps…and it fit right in with everything – the topic, and the blog name too!

  28. I’ve been looking for a “kashmiri” food blogger. No, I’m not from the region. I’m a punju, but I love trying food from other regions….your blog is going down on my blogroll!

    Thanks for reading, GB!

  29. I am so glad I found your blog. Everything from tea to the dishes sound exciting and planning on trying the Kadu sabji that you have with the puri. Thanks for posting just unusal reciepes.

  30. Greetings! As I read your food blogs, specially one on Kashmiri recipes I felt choking feeling in my throat and tear in my eyes.Your recipes and way of narration took me back to all my childhood memories..It brought back memories of food that my naani used to cook for us when ever we went to matamaal.Thank you for making me relive those days through your post.Wish you all the best.Your grandchildren will be lucky.
    Lots of Love

    Thanks for the love, Shanu. You are an architect too, it seems! Welcome to my thoughts here. Sometimes even I get nostalgic reading my own writings! Thanks for reading.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s