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Chai for thieves and detectives

Decoding Chai Noomi Basra—a tea infused with dried lemon peels—from the Netflix series with adapted works of Satyajit Ray

Dried lime is known as ‘Noomi Basra’ in Iraq (IStockPhoto)
Dried lime is known as ‘Noomi Basra’ in Iraq (IStockPhoto)

I googled Chai Noomi Basra, like so many others have, after watching Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa from the Netflix anthology series Ray. It was not a blink-and-miss tea in the film; it stayed in the frame long enough for one to see it, hear the name, remember it and then google it.

The scene in the film—much of which is on a train—has the character Aslam Baig asking for tea, with milk separate. When it arrives, he takes out some gnarly stuff from a little box and throws it into the cup. What is that, asks the protagonist, Musafir Ali. Chai Noomi Basra, says Baig. Arabian chai

Basra is the giveaway—its origins lie in Basra, Iraq. Noomi Basra is dried lime. Chai Noomi Basra seems to be a popular tisane, not tea, made by simmering dried lime in water for 10-15 minutes and sweetening it. It’s good for digestion apparently.

In the film, the gentleman with the gnarly bits, which turn out to be dried lime, offers some to Musafir Alir, who takes a whiff and grimaces. An acquired taste perhaps?

Having enjoyed the episode, and the way the director had transposed the story to another milieu,  I was curious to see what Satyajit Ray himself had written. Did he too have Chai Noomi Basra in his story? Or did he have lebu cha, the Bengali lemon tea, instead? Barin Bhowmick’s Ailment is the story that Ray wrote. I reached the part where the character asks for tea; it’s black tea. It’s a detail that is significant to the whole story.

Knowing the Bengali proclivity for tea and the considerable lengths they will go to source it, I did wonder about Ray’s own tea preferences. I asked author and food historian Chitrita Banerji, who was the first to translate four of Ray’s Feluda novels into English. Feluda, one of Ray’s most unforgettable characters, is a tea-loving detective. Banerji shared this nugget: “I worked with Mr Ray over several months and I noticed that Feluda’s tea preference was modelled on his own.” Feluda, she said, is very particular about his tea, insisting on superior Darjeeling tea, accompanied by dalmoot, a popular snack that he had custom-made at a  little shop called Kalimuddin’s, in Kolkata’s New Market. 

In keeping the “black tea” but detailing it as the Chai Noomi Basra, I think writer Niren Bhatt and director Abhishek Chaubey have paid homage to the master, and, unwittingly perhaps, even to tea. 

Dried lime, I learnt online, is made by boiling a batch of lime in salt water and sun-drying it for days (how many is unclear). Its uses go beyond tea (both hot and cold); it’s used extensively in Iraqi cooking.

Since dried black lime was mentioned in several recipes, and was available online, I ordered some to make the Chai Noomi Basra: as a tisane, as a tea à la Ray, and by steeping some with my tea. Adding it to the pot with the tea was not very nice but it tasted great as a tisane, made by adding it to water and bringing it to a boil, a lovely lime concoction that didn’t even need sweetening. Chucking it into a cup of black tea made for a nice cup of lemon tea, tart but not sour.

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.

@AravindaAnanth1

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