The pristine valley of Kashmir is the living proof of the exchange of culture, cuisine, commodities and even religions amongst the Central Asian countries and eastern countries like China. One such commodity reached the snow-covered streets of Kashmir with the first Islamic ruler of the state - Sultan Sadruddin Shah (Rinchan), who had his religious roots in Kashgar, Turkestan. He brought with him the culture of drinking a salted tea called Noon Chai.
The concept of Noon Chai was adapted by the Kashmiri Muslims as a routine - they consumed the tea every morning with baked breads like Kulcha and Taelwor (pictured above). On the other hand, for the Pandits, it was a foreign beverage, which proved to be a symbol of hospitality and luxury. The Pandits also called it Sheer Chai, due to the presence of milk in it. In Pandit households, this tea was enriched with Malai (fresh cream), slivers of almonds and crushed cardamom. It was then served with sweet snacks and freshly-baked breads.
Sheer Chai is traditionally made from the Gunpowder tea leaves, which were shaped like a round pellet in order to retain the bold aroma and lightly-smoky flavour for a long time. These rolled tea leaves were kept on a lit Dan (Kashmiri earthen stove) with little water and salt. It was brewed by adding more water gradually, until the reddish-brown extract called tyoth was released. It was later diluted by adding milk or a mix of milk and water. These days Sodium Bi-Carbonate (Baking Soda) is added to achieve the colour, but originally, Phel (salt from Nubra Valley, Ladakh) was used as it naturally composes bi-carbonates and sulphates of Soda with very little chlorides of Sodium. This pink colour and the immaculate aroma of Sheer Chai are the reasons of it's immortality over the years.
Nowadays the pink delight attracts gourmets from all around the world and is cherished by a lot of Non-Kashmiris. During its journey as Atkan Chai from Turkestan, to Qaymak Chai (sweetened) in Afghanistan, Gur Gur Chai in Ladakh and finally to be known as Sheer Chai/Noon Chai in Kashmir, the tea has undergone a lot of alterations in terms of flavouring and preparation. But the health benefits like aiding digestion and stimulating the nervous system remained constant.
The most appropriate method of preparation in India is as follows:
- Gunpowder tea leaves (you can alternately use Kehwa leaves)
- Water (for brewing)
- Sodium Bi-Carbonate (Baking Soda)
- Milk (depending on number of servings)
- Fresh Cream/Malai (for garnish)
- Crushed Almonds and Cardamom (for garnish)
- In a saucepan, add a cup of water with about a tablespoonful of gunpowder tea leaves with two pinches of sodium bi-carbonate and little rock salt.
- Bring it to a boil. Reduce the flame and let the concoction simmer until the reddish-brown extract is released. You may have to add more water. Do it gradually in small amounts.
- As soon as you achieve the extract, strain it and dilute it with milk or a mixture of milk and water. Add salt to taste. Let it boil.
- Pour in a Khos or mug of your choice, garnish with fresh cream and powdered almonds and cardamom.
- Cherish with sweet snacks or freshly baked breads of your choice.
Information and recipe by Mrs. Nalini Moti Sadhu, Chef/Curator at Matamaal Restaurants; Scripted by Priyanka Bhardwaj