Kahwa: The Taste of Paradise
By Arka Chakraborty
Situated at the north-western corner of the modern Indian nation-state, the valley of Kashmir has historically been compared with paradise for its picturesque and tranquil natural beauty. This beauty, along with the valley’s agreeable climate and its welcoming people, have made it a desirable place of retreat for India’s elite since the late middle ages and has become a tourist destination in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries for the people of India and beyond. One of the popular legends that have increased the attraction of Kashmir to those wanting to visit the valley is its isolation and uniqueness: it is believed that since the valley is extremely difficult to reach, civilization here developed in isolation, cut off from the world at large, producing a culture that was wholly unique for centuries. Although recent scholars have proven beyond a doubt that the valley of Kashmir had been a well-connected hub of trade and a kind of cultural middle point between Central and South Asia, the isolation myth has persisted. However, the fact that the Kashmir valley is unique in many ways need not be a statement contradictory to the fact that the valley has been a well-connected territory maintaining regular interactions with the rest of the world throughout its history. In fact, the intense interaction between different cultures that has characterized the valley’s history has also shaped its unique identity. One of the ways in which visitors to the valley today can experience this cultural blend is through Kashmir’s traditional cuisine which combines ingredients, cooking methods and pallets from various parts of Central and South Asia to produce tastes which are entirely unique to the valley. Today, one of the concoctions that accentuates the valley’s uniqueness and simultaneously holds within it a glimpse of its connected history is the green tea-based drink known as Kahwa.
The Kashmiri word ‘Kahwa’ (also written as ‘Kehwa’ or ‘Kahwah’) has its origin in the Arabic word ‘qahwah’ which means either ‘aromatic beverage’ or ‘sweetened tea’ (sources differ).There is no documentary evidence that can help us to determine the exact origin or Kahwa in kashmir- the ‘knowledge’ about the same is just a group of popular legends. The green tea leaves that form the basis of the drink are said to have been imported to the valley from China through the notorious Spice Routes. However, another theory places the origin of the Kahwa leaves in first or second century AD Yarkand which was then under the political domination of the Kushan empire. Still others place the beginning of the Kahwa tea in Kashmir much later during the Mughal period, claiming that the beverage was brought to the region by Mughal rulers, based on the fact that many locals have called the beverage ‘Mogul chai’ for a long time.
The ingredients used to prepare Kahwa and the traditional methods of the same indicate the transregional cultural interactions which have shaped Kashmir. The green tea leaves themselves were imported from outside the valley, whether from Yarkand or somewhere else in China. Cardamum barks, cinnamon buds, cloves, are used to provide the tea with its distinctive flavor. Apart from this, there are innumerable ways in which one might enhance or embellish Kahwa. While some use dried cherries, almonds, pine nuts in their tea, others use apples, apricots, walnuts and even cashew nuts to add texture to their drinks. While some of these spices, fruits and nuts are native to the valley, others have always been imported here from elsewhere.
Traditionally, a device called ‘samovar’ is used to prepare Kahwa. It is a copper or brass kettle with a central cavity which houses burning coal to warm it up. Outside of this cavity, there is space for boiling water and other ingredients to make the tea. A nozzle is present to pour out the drink once it is ready. Samovars generally have beautiful carvings. Significantly, the practice of preparing tea with coal-heated appliances has its origins in Afghanistan, Russia and Iran. Hence, the very method of preparing Kahwa is undoubtedly a testament to the vast network that Kashmir was a part of in ancient and medieval times.
There are three major variants of Kahwa- Shangri Kahwa, Classical Kahwa and Doodh Kahwa. These are popular based on region and demography. For example, milk is an ingredient generally avoided while preparing Kahwa, but is used when the drink is served to older people. More importantly, the flexibility in using different ingredients to prepare the drink has ensured that apart from the three major variants, Kahwa has innumerable variations based on locality or even individual preference. Some areas, for example, see the popularity of honey as an ingredient in Kahwa in order to make it taste similar to ‘chashni,’ whereas saffron (zafran or kong) is an ingredient used to prepare Kahwa in Srinagar. The traditional Kahwa has a light golden appearance, but the countless variations in ingredient usage means that this is far from the only appearance of the beverage.
In spite of the countless variations in the combination of ingredients used to prepare Kahwa, the basic ingredients used to prepare the drink ensure that it has health benefits which are unsurpassed by most other kinds of tea. Regular consumption of Kahwa burns fat and increases metabolism, reduces stress and increases concentration, helps in maintaining good eyesight, relieves headaches and migraine, reduces cold and energizes the body, Given the multifaceted benefits of this single drink, it is small wonder that it is dubbed as ‘magic tea’ or ‘the Green Tea of Kashmir.’
Today, Kahwa has spread beyond the borders of the valley and is now heavily consumed in Afghanistan, Iran, Bangladesh and some other Central Asian countries. Tea companies and delivery services are now experimenting with traditional variations of Kahwa, combining them with aspects of Indian tea to create blends of their own which are now being consumed by a truly global audience. In the fast-paced world of the twenty-first century, common people are now seeking simpler ways to prepare Kahwa and samovars are now receding into obscurity as far as some modern Kashmiri nuclear families are concerned. In spite of this modernization and globalization, however, there are also efforts to preserve ‘traditional’ Kahwa. Even now, this tea is presented to guests as a matter of long-standing tradition. Kahwa prepared by using samovar is generally also presented at the end of a wazwan in order to make the experience memorable for the guests.
The culture of the Kashmir valley is the product of centuries of intercultural interactions and exchanges along with the indigenous jewels the valley itself has to offer. Nothing, perhaps, exhibits this hybridity more than Kahwa, an ostensibly ‘Kashmiri’ beverage that has developed by combining indigenous and foreign ingredients with a brewing process with foreign origins. Over generations, Kahwa has become an irreplaceable part of Kashmiri life and is served as a matter of tradition to guests in gatherings and feasts. The challenges of the twenty-first century has only served to increase the popularity of this traditional drink, with numerous tea companies introducing the world to their versions and interpretations of what a perfect Kahwa experience ought to be. Thanks to these new developments, the paradise in a cup is now all set to conquer the world’s taste buds while still remaining a part of Kashmiri traditions.