Thursday, 28 January 2016

Pink and Fabulous

A lot of people ask for the recipe to make Nun Chai or Kashmiri Chai.

In Srinagar and the areas around it, Nun Chai is the default Kashmiri Chai. Its a salty brew pink in colour. It is to be had hot, and I take mortal offence if someone calls it a soup. In case, I am not clear on that count, let me repeat, it is not a soup. I am glad that we cleared that up.

Outside Kashmir, in areas like Rawalpindi, the same is had with sugar and lot of spices, I am told. But not so in Kashmir. Never in Kashmir. Also, it is not a soup.

When I was a little child, we made nun chai on the electric heater. Those were simpler days, with very little electricity and very cold winters. The only corner of the kitchen that would be warm was the one with the heater. Placed on a wooden board covered with a tin sheet, there were strict rules in place for the children against touching it. Its coils would burn bright orange, and if you placed your face close to it, you could smell your hair singe. We did that for fun.

The tea would be boiled for hours and when the liquid was dark and sufficiently bitter, it would be left covered for the night to be used in the morning for breakfast. There is no rule or need for overnight cooling, we just did it because we prepared it in the evening and no one would have tea at that hour. In the morning, the black tea would be mixed with milk and heated again, a dollop of fresh milk cream added for taste, and boiled.

Breakfast is served.

There is no fixed method of preparing it, so much so that there is only one way we know of. It is used for all quantities, from two – three cups for a single person to dozens of cups for the samovar. The best way to prepare it is to go by instincts, but here are the approximate quantities for 1-2 cups:

Nun Chai tea leaves – 1 (or a little bit more) tablespoonfuls (notice, these leaves are large and when boiled in water they ‘open up’). Nun chai leaves are green and long, and not the usual ones. 

Sodium bicarbonate – ½ teaspoon (a pinch actually, or a little more). This is important for the wholesome flavour and colour.

Milk – 1 cup (or more, if you like milkier teas)

Salt – to taste

So how is it prepared? Preparing Nun Chai is a very straight forward, though time taking, process. And for first timers, it is difficult to get right. When I prepared nunchai for the first time, it was perfect in taste and fabulously pink. Not so much the second and third time. I had forgotten the proportions.

To prepare the tea, boil the leaves and the sodium bicarbonate in 3 cups of water. Boil till about half the water is evaporated and the remaining is dark – a woody brown (almost burgundy) or black. The tea leaves will hydrate and sink to the bottom. That's where you want them.

Add in milk. The best way to do that is to add milk in parts and letting it boil. When the tea leaves have been boiled to the perfect brown/black colour and the soda has worked its way in, the milk gives the brew its characteristic pink colour. If you add the whole milk in one go, you may not see it.

The greenish colour of the tea is due to butter. 

In Kashmir, we do not put any spices in our tea. On special occasions, like weddings or Urs of saints, coconut flakes are put (with the milk) to enhance the taste. That is the extent of the use of nuts in Nun Chai and the use of coconut in Kashmir (the only other use I can think of is addition in phirni). Contrary to what some people on the internet profess, I have never had nunchai with pistachios, almonds, star anise (what an unKashmiri thing to do!) and cardamom. So, now that nuts are out, you can vastly vary the taste by adding butter or cream to the tea.

The breads and accoutrements to be had with nunchai deserve a blogpost of their own. So we will leave that for now.

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