Kashmiri Kahwa Tea Recipe

Srinagar, on the lakefront lawn of the Dar Es Salaam guesthouse. In the golden morning haze the kids chased shikara boats and lily pads. One of them fell in the lake, maybe. We weren’t paying much attention. My throat itched, and Josh had the chills. Maybe it was the damp air we’d sucked in during the drive, a shock from the dry heat of India. Maybe it was the pretty haze, emissions from burning wood smoke from nearby fields.

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Probably, it was the grueling work of getting here. What was supposed to be a short jaunt turned out to be a two day odyssey. We had missed a connecting flight the previous day, after a flight attendant bizarrely—and wordlessly—took us all around the Delhi airport, everywhere but the plane, and eventually to security (oh why, Indigo?). They eyed our stuff like it was packed with bombs, not Patagonia gear. The kids cried. Rohan wanted to send everyone to jail, as per usual. Eight hours later, we bought expensive new tickets, on a different airline, at a different airport, for the following day. By then our nerves were shot, we were so very tired, and we had eaten too many airport samosas.

Two adults laid low, plus two rampaging children, is a perilous formula for travel. Our very nice hosts at the Dar Es Salaam, looked over from our children—talking to strangers, going swimming etcetera—to our wan, droopy faces. They knew about our plans the next morning: Himalayan camping for four days, thousands of meters above above sea level. They said we needed a strong drink, to help us recover. Josh was a little disappointed when they brought out tea.

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Caught re-handed, trying to hijack a shikara boat

Kashmiris are into tea. Over three weeks, we have heard people credit tea with live-giving properties. It builds up stamina and big muscles. It braces you for the mountains.  Tea is to Kashmiris what shopping and burritos are to Americans. Something they really believe in, and non-negotiable.

I wasn’t raised on it. My Indian family never even drank chai, after a health conscious grandparent banned it from his bungalow nearly a century ago (caffeine is for wimps, said Dada). I steeped my first baggies in college, and then moved on to loose leave greens and smoky oolongs, and whatever was served with dimsum. The only tea I despite is puer (fermenting cow patty look and aroma, no). Dar Es Salaam’s kahwa, warm whole spices steeped in water, and infused with green tea, is a yes. Sitting in the garden, we stirred in mellow honey. The crunch of sliced almonds in the last sip was surprising and so good. One pot and one nap later, I wasn’t cartwheeling into the amaranth bushes, but the bugs had relinquished my throat. Josh’s too.

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Soon we had taken to ordering double pots of tea, as the kids had begun stealing ours. During the camping trip, we took kahwa to the next level. We drank instant kahwa spiked with ginger. When Josh became sick, he drank his spiked with ginger and lime juice and Great Lakes collagen powder, to arrest his soaring temp and tummy problems (in a day!). In the hill station town of Pahalgam, sometimes kahwa is served with dried fruits, and other times with crushed walnuts instead of almonds. Sometimes there are no tea leaves steeped in the tea at all. But it was the children who had taken to the most dramatic variation for breakfast, called Nun chai. Kahwa transformed by a chemical reaction between baking soda and tea leaves, into something pink and frothy, and even creamy, once milk is added. Our new friends at the Pahalgam Hotel, watching the children relish nun chai at breakfast, demonstrated how it’s made.

“This,” Abdul chacha proudly told us, “is how we Kashmiris withstand the weather.” Rohan, who was taking notes for a homeschool assignment, looked very impressed. But how, exactly, does it work? “Strengthens your kidneys,” piped in Abdul chacha’s sous chef. Abdul chacha frowned. “Perhaps you mean the liver,” he replied.

Taking a sip, I sputtered over my cup. The pretty pink tea was salty. Undeniably so. Immediately I demoted nun chai to several notches below puer.

“Still yummy,” Rohan said, but maybe the tea needed something, like spices. Oh yes, spices! Abdul chacha smiled beatifically. He had forgotten about spices. And he added, he has never made tea, for himself…or anyone really.

“Our women,” he shrugged like a strong Kashmiri mountain man, “they make very good chai at home.”

The Dar Es Salaam, in Srinagar, is our reigning favorite for kahwa. The kind staff gave us a demonstration too.  During their down time of course, as they were very busy fishing, playing tag, reading Sufi poetry, and watching Mexican Luche Libre wrestling with the kids on the television. We ran into a spice issue here, too. November at the hotel is low season, and the pantry is a bit bare. They had run out of some stuff. That’s fine. Kahwa is infinitely variable. It was still delicious.

Kahwa recipe—for four dainty tea cups, or 2 coffee mugs—here:

Ingredients:

GREEN CARDAMOM: 3, crushed

INDIAN OR CEYLON CINNAMON: 1 large stick

ALMONDS: 2 t, crushed or sliced

SAFFRON: 8 strands

SOME GOOD HONEY

Optional…

GREEN TEA: 2 t whole leaves

ROSE: 1 teaspoon scented edible petals, or water

CLOVES: 2-3 t

FRUIT: 2 t fresh sliced apples, or minced dried apricots or cherries

Method:

  1. SIMMER cinnamon, cardamom (and the clove, if you are so inclined) in 3 cups of boiling water for 3-4 minutes, until infused to a medium brown. (If you’re not using green tea leaves, strain liquid and add saffron to simmer another minute.) Turn off gas.
  2. STEEP with green tea leaves, covered, for 3 minutes.
  3. SPRINKLE almonds, saffron, rose petals or essence, and fruit evenly between cups.
  4. STRAIN the tea into the prepared cups, or into a teapot. Serve with honey.
Purvi Patel

Co-founder of Camp Cardamom in Kerala, India

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