Noon Chai: The Salty Beverage at the heart of Kashmir
By Arka Chakarborty
Nestled amidst hills and mountains in north-western India, the valley of Kashmir and its population intrigue the observer due to the many unique and sometimes even bewildering phenomena. This uniqueness is due to Kashmir’s geographical location and its historical status as a hub of trade and communications between Central and South Asia. The coming together of these traditions and the interactions that they have had has created the fascinating Kashmiri culture that is at once local and cosmopolitan. This cultural vibrancy seeps into every aspect of the quotidian life of the people who live here: from its architectural marvels to its aesthetic common sense right down to its cuisine. Kashmiris love their tea; they consume it in the mornings, afternoons and evenings. Here they share the sentiment with the majority of the subcontinent’s population. However, where the quintessential uniqueness of the valley makes its appearance is in the kinds of tea that they brew and prefer. The British brand of tea preparation which somewhat dominates the rest of subcontinent is but one variant in the Kashmiri kitchen, known as ‘Lipton tea.’ The kinds of tea that the Kashmiris adore most of all are indigenous to the valley: Kahwa and Noon Chai.
While the sweet, delectable and often royally garnished Kahwa has secured for itself an admiring global audience in recent years, noon chai has a mixed reputation among the non Kashmiri tea-loving community due to the apparently bizarre choice of using salt instead of sugar in the authentic recipe. Nevertheless, this is the choice that has been made by the Kashmiri population for centuries and they continue to enjoy the salty beverage in their daily lives.
The word ‘Noon’ or ‘Nun’ refers to salt in a number of Indian languages like Kashmiri, Rajasthani, Bengali and Hindi. The word ‘chai’ means tea. Therefore, the term ‘noon chai’ literally means salt tea. Alternatively, the drink is also called gulabi chai, namkeen chai and sheer chai. Like most of the Kashmiri dishes, there is no documentary evidence pointing definitively towards the origin of the beverage in Kashmir. Rather, oral traditions and legends show curious observers the way to possible sources of noon chai. The most prevalent legend is that noon chai came to Kashmir from the Yarkand region in Turkestan where the Atkan chai is made with salt, milk and butter. The origins of this tea, according to the Global tea history, can be traced to the first or second century AD. Another possible point of origin could have been the Gur-Gur chai of Ladakh which was made with similar components. Tea itself is not indigenous to Kashmir and seems to have originated in China and brought to Kashmir from there via the Silk Route. Kashmir’s status as a trade and communications hub in the ancient and medieval periods was responsible for the recipe of the noon chai and the ingredients themselves reaching the valley. Hence, this everyday beverage is the product of complex trans regional interactions.
The method of preparing traditional noon chai is a complex and time-consuming process. It is perhaps the only kind of tea that requires baking soda or sodium bicarbonate (locally known as phel) to prepare. Although green tea may be used to prepare this drink, ideally the traditional recipe demands the use of what is known as gunpowder tea. Gunpowder tea is prepared by rolling young green tea leaves into small round pellets. These resemble the texture of gunpowder, so the tea is named after the same. Moreover, sometimes this tea is roasted slightly to preserve it, which gives any drink prepared from this tea a roasted flavor. This is another reason for the name it is famous as. At first, the tea and baking soda are put in cold water. Thereafter, this mixture is heated to the boiling point. At this point, the baking soda reacts with the tea to give the water a reddish tinge. After the concoction has reduced in terms of volume to a good extent, water is added to it. Some people also add ice in order to cool the mixture down. Thereafter, it is boiled again until the concoction is reduced again. This process is repeated at least 2-3 times every 10-15 minutes. This is done until the liquid attains a deep red-brown (some sources compare this to the color of ruby) hue. This concentrated liquid is called ‘tueth’ or ‘tyoth.’ Finally, salt and milk are added to the mix. Adding milk is crucial here as it gives the tea its signature pink color. The aromatic noon chai is garnished with crushed almond, pistachios, fruits and/or edible rose petals before serving.
The whole process can take from around 45 minutes to two hours.
Like Kahwa, the Kashmiri noon chai was also traditionally prepared in and served from samovars. Samovars are copper utensils with a cavity in the middle for the user to put coal in with which tea can be cooked. The utensil also has a handle and a projecting space at another to pour the tea through. They often feature intricate engravings or embossings (naqashi) which usually depict floral geometric leaves of the chinar tree and sometimes also cover calligraphy. The price of a samovar varies based on the design and the weight. They are a crucial part of Kashmiri weddings and are in high demand during the wedding season. Although these kettles are a part of traditional Kashmiri life, the fast-paced world of the twenty-first century sometimes forces people to replace samovars with modern kettles for their daily use.
The highly unique taste of the noon chai demands a divergence from the norm when it comes to the favored accompaniments. Apart from the crunchy biscuits or crackers that are usually served with any kind of tea, the noon chai is often consumed with various kinds of Kashmiri breads like naan or tschot, lavassa, the Kashmiri bagel or Czochwor. Naan khatai, a kind of shortbread cookie well-known in Kashmir, is also consumed. One particular source advises that anything buttery is a good fit while drinking the salty beverage.
The salty taste of noon chai is a subject of great disagreement among tea lovers worldwide. Some whole-heartedly support and enjoy this beverage in its originality, while others prefer a sweetened drink. This disagreement manifests itself boldly when one comes to indulge in the local variants of the drink. The Kashmiri migrants to Pakistan took their noon chai with them, but the locals there drink a variant of the beverage where the salt is replaced with sugar. This is called sheer chai or ‘sweetened tea.’ Further north-west, in Afghanistan a drink very similar to noon chai is consumed which is known as qayamak chai. In spite of the striking similarities, this too is a sweetened beverage.
From a heath perspective, noon chai presents both opportunity and danger. On the one hand, scientific research has proven that the beverage is very helpful during the bone-chilling Kashmiri winters. The sodium bicarbonate content in it provides it with digestive properties. The drink also contains L-theanine, an amino acid component, which makes it instrumental in decreasing symptoms of anxiety and stress. Kashmiri folklore insists that noon chai is refreshing in heat and a life-saver during cold. However, too much consumption can also land one in terrible trouble, as salt is independently associated with increasing the chances of gastric cancer. This drink, therefore, may be seen as an apt example of too much of a good thing being bad for you.
The salty beverage that is the staple of every Kashmiri household has now been popularized across the Indian subcontinent and worldwide due to the advent of the internet. Many online forums have now published recipes of the tea, which anyone can follow to enjoy noon chai for themselves without having to travel to the valley. However, these recipes always transform the original, traditional version of the noon chai to fit the schedule and usable utensils of the modern viewer. While this transformation has created the opportunity of providing people across the globe the opportunity to enjoy the noon chai experience, the experience itself is somewhat removed from that which can be enjoyed in the traditional method. One source even suggests that many of those tea shops which commercially offer noon chai logistically cannot afford to go through the entire traditional process of brewing the tea for 45 minutes to two hours. Therefore, they sometimes end up adding food color to give the tea the pinkish hue of the authentic brew.
The salty pink beverage called noon chai leaves the tea adorers across the globe with mixed feelings. Some enthusiastically accept the unconventional taste of the drink, while others, being not so welcoming, make changes to suit their palates. Some advocate consuming the tea as a life- saving tonic because of its numerous health benefits while others point to the very real danger of cancer. The popularization of the drink in the cyber age may also lead to the danger of the loss of authenticity, as the long and arduous process of preparing this tea is close to impossible in today’s fast-paced world. Away from all these problems, however, the average Kashmiri continues to enjoy his/her/their daily cup(s) of goodness poured out of a traditional samovar. It seems very likely that as long as Kashmiri winters are present, the Kashmiris will have the noon chai as their constant companion.