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A legendary Kashmiri tea

Recounting a pre-lockdown tale of sampling and learning about the savoury ‘nunchai’

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Here’s a story from the pre-lockdown days, one that was an unexpected bonus from my quest for the kahwa.

Three samovars stood before me at Azmat Ali Mir’s restaurant and tea room, Sarposh, in Bengaluru. One held the ambrosial saffron kahwa, another, the doodh kahwa. The third had Mir’s go-to beverage, the nunchai. Nun in Kashmiri is salt and that was a clue.

It is also known as sheerchai among Kashmiri Pandits. I was curious about the taste but even more so about how it came to be. And Mir had the story on the ready.

“Do you know of Shah-i-Hamadan?" she begins. The story of the nunchai is tied to the legend of the Persian Sufi saint Mir Syed Ali Hamdani. This 14th century missionary, mystic and social reformer was instructed in a vision to go to Kashmir. He set out to do so, taking with him a few hundred artisans and craftsmen. They enriched the region with their skills, offering a new source of livelihood for people. Embroidery, calligraphy, papier mâché, shawl weaving, carpet making…all this arrived in the valley with Mir Syed Ali Hamdani and his entourage. They also brought the nunchai, having probably acquired a taste for it en route to Kashmir via Central Asia.

And since there can be no nunchai without tschot, or Kashmiri bread, the story turns to the baker, or the kandur. Mir talks about how the kandur is indispensable in Kashmir. “If we know our kandur is going to be away," she says, “we order extra bread, made with ghee to help keep it longer. We will also eat it sparingly so that it lasts until the kandur returns!" Not surprisingly, the bread shop, or the kandurwan, is a place where people gather and conversations big and small are had while the bread bakes.

The process of making the nunchai seems rather laborious, calling for skill and practice. Should you want to try it at home, here’s what you should know. Unlike other teas, the nunchai is made as a concentrate; Mir says it can keep for three-four days in the fridge.Take green tea leaves (around 2 tsp for five-six cups; there are no fixed measurements, as with most Indian cooking) and crush them in the palm of your hand. Now, add it to a pan with 1 cup of cold water and a pinch or two of baking soda. As it boils, the water will start changing colour. Continue to add water until the tea concentrate is a burgundy/blackish-pink in colour.

When the concentrate is ready, add water, milk and salt to taste. You can go with one cup of milk to four cups of water but this ratio can be altered depending on how milky or dark you like your tea. The chai turns a shade of pink when you add milk—a characteristic of the nunchai. Now, add one-two crushed green cardamoms for flavour and let the tea boil and then simmer on low flame for 5-7 minutes. For a richer taste, add malai (cream) on top or a dollop of butter into the cup. The tea pairs well with Indian namkeen like matthi and khari biscuit. For a savoury-sweet combination, try it with Kashmiri roth.

Tea Takes

Goodricke’s Samovar Green Tea is a popular nunchai base, available easily online. The tea is usually had after lunch as it is said to aid digestion.

Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry.

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