Every morning at the crack of dawn, the first order of the Kashmiri day is to light the coals which will heat water for the samovar, the ornate spouted vessel which holds the family tea. What kind of tea, or chai, the family makes seems to divide along sectarian lines, Muslim or Hindu. The two teas couldn't be any more different from one another. Their uniqueness also beautifully illustrates the regional nature of Indian cuisine. Today, I will share recipes for both types of Kashmiri chai.
But first, I have to get something off my chest. As my favorite local slam poet, Shailja Patel, is fond of pointing out, chai is not "a beverage invented in California." The Hindi/Urdu word chai simply means "tea." "Chai tea" is a redundancy. Uttering the phrase "chai tea latte," the drink sold by Starbucks/Tazo®, should be a criminal offense. The three word phrase, strung together from the languages of three countries with unique culinary traditions, is a symbol of all that is wrong with globalization. Starbucks describes its drink as a blend of "exotic spices and comforting vanilla." The flavor bears more resemblance to a pumpkin pie than to the bracing cuppa sold by every chaiwallah at railroad stations throughout India. (Don't get me started on the "chai eggnog soy latte" I spotted on the Starbucks website).
If you were to peer into the samovar in a Hindu pandit's kitchen, you may be surprised to discover green, not black, tea leaves. There is also no milk in this tea, which goes by the name kahva (also spelled kahwa). Kahva is usually served sweet and is infused with crushed almonds, green cardamom and sometimes cinnamon. On rare, very special occasions, a few strands of saffron may be added as well.
As a green tea drinker and a fan of anything with cardamom in it, I was extremely excited to learn about this lighter alternative to masala chai. I talked to a Pakistani halal butcher/grocer in town to find out what variety of green tea is used to make kahva. Kashmiris call it "Bombay tea," but in the tea trade here it is known as "gunpowder," named after the way the more mature tea leaves curl up into pellets when dried. The tea, grown in Sri Lanka or China, is available in any store that specializes in Middle Eastern groceries, where it is simply labeled "green tea."
I enjoyed the uplifting combination of flavors and plan to make kahva often, especially during the winter months. It makes an excellent post dinner digestif as well. I have not yet tried the kahva with saffron, as my wife doesn't care for saffron.
Judged on appearance alone, it would be difficult to tell apart the milky tea favored by the majority Muslim population of Kashmir from the iconic railroad station masala chai. Both are made with black tea, milk and, sometimes, spices. One taste, however, and you'll know you're not in Delhi. Sheer chai or noon chai (noon is Kashmiri and sheer is Persian for milk) is salty, containing no sugar. For this milky brew, Kashmiris use a type of tea similar to Darjeeling called pahari (literally "of the mountain"). When Hindu pandits make sheer chai, they typically add a masala of some combination of green cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, black peppercorns, poppy seeds, and crushed almonds. Traditionally, tea makers also add a pinch of baking soda, which turns the tea a pinkish color.
Although I admittedly disliked the saltiness and the chemical flavor imparted by the baking soda, I may feel differently if I were sipping this after a trek through the Himalayas. The Tibetan peoples who dwell in neighboring Ladakh (technically a region within Kashmir) favor a similarly salty brew. They infamously include a dollop of rancid yak butter in their tea.
As a bonus, the winner of my prize will also receive the ingredients and the recipe to make masala chai, as taught to me by N's Bollywood socialite aunt. Aunt Geeta renowned throughout Mumbai (Bombay) for her masala chai.
Click the button below to be taken to the donation page where you can buy a raffle ticket for yourself or, as Sam of Becks & Posh suggested, as a gift to others on your holiday shopping list. Remember, whether you win or lose, all of the money raised will be donated to UNICEF to aid the victims of the massive earthquake that struck Kashmir in October. Thank you.
The complete recipes for the two Kashmiri-style chais are found below the jump!
1 t green tea ("gunpowder")
4 green cardamoms, seeds only, crushed to powder
6 almonds, blanched and coarsely crushed
2 T sugar (more or less, according to preference)
few shards from a stick of cinnamon (optional)
4 threads saffron (optional)
4 c water
Add tea (and saffron, if using) to water in a pot and bring to a boil. As soon as boils, strain into cups. Traditionally, the cardamom powder, crushed almonds and the optional cinnamon are placed into the cups and the tea is poured over. I prefer to add the cardamom and almonds to the tea at the beginning and then strain it all out. Stir in sugar to preference.
2 t tea leaves (Darjeeling)
1 pinch baking soda
¼ t salt
1½ c whole milk
3½ c water
4 green cardamoms, seeds only, crushed to powder
4 almonds, coarsely crushed
1 T cream (optional)
In a pot, bring ½ cup of the water to a boil. Add tea and baking soda. Boil for 5 minutes or so to reduce water by half. Add remaining 3 c water, milk, cream (if using) and salt and bring to a boil. As with kahva, the cardamom powder and crushed almonds are placed into the cups and the tea is poured over. I prefer to add the cardamom and almonds to the tea at the beginning and then strain it all out.