"Like a Creamsicle with flowers in it."
You've had chai, the milk and spice-laden Indian standard now ubiquitous throughout the States. But have you heard of its popular variant, Kashmiri chai? Also known as noon chai or gulabi chai (translating to salt tea and pink tea, respectively), this rosy-hued variety is the luxurious, special-occasion drink of choice for Pakistanis.
The History of Kashmiri Chai
Kashmiri tea comes from a very particular variety of leaf, found almost exclusively in Kashmir and its surrounding area. Fatima Ali, the chef of the popular Brooklyn food truck VanPakistan describes it as "not as bitter and more floral than black tea." During British colonization, as chai was becoming popular in India with the introduction of English tea, the Kashmiri population developed its own version, made with the local leaves.
When Partition happened in 1947, and Pakistan and India became separate countries, Kashmir remained a hotly contested area between the two nations. However, as the territorial debate wore on, many Kashmiris ended up settling in Pakistan, as many of them were Muslim, and Pakistan is a majority-Muslim nation. They brought their Kashmiri Chai with them, and soon it became one of the country's most well known drinks.
How to Make Kashmiri Chai
Kashmiri tea leaves are very similar to green tea in that they are minimally oxidized, and many people use the latter when they can't find the former. Because the Kashmiri variety of tea leaf is only found in Kashmir, it's usually more expensive than other varieties.
Making Kashmiri chai requires patience. The process starts with heating up water to a simmer, then adding the loose-leaf tea. Then, you take a big whisk and beat the tea water for twenty minutes, to start introducing air into the mixture. The next step involves taking a large ladle and spooning the tea up and down, in and out of the pot, as another way to aerate the tea—this happens in fifteen-minute intervals over two hours (a pretty intense arm workout!). That addition of air is what gives the tea its pink color.
After the tea has been properly aerated, equal amounts of milk are added, the tea is left to steep for a little longer, and then it is finished with some salt, sugar, and crushed pistachios. According to Ali, the traditionalists just add salt (hence the name noon chai), whereas those with a preference for Western tea preparations will just add sugar, omitting the salt entirely.
Ali describes the taste as "a creamy, milky citrus. Like a Creamsicle with flowers in it." Even though the drink bears the name "chai," the taste is quite different. While chai relies on a bold mixture of spices (cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and the like), Kashmiri chai is delicate. If spices are used, they're usually just small amounts of cinnamon or cardamom. Ali often uses Kashmiri chai as a base for ice cream, topping it with sea salt, crushed pistachios and candied rose petals, or as a soak for her cakes.
There's a variety of pastries that can accompany Kashmiri chai, and one of the most common is called naan khatai—a type of shortbread cookie with brown sugar caramel baked on top. "You get this sticky, slightly sweet caramel stuck in the back of your tooth when you bite into it, and then when you have the hot tea, that caramel literally melts in your mouth," Ali says. "That rich butteriness goes really well with hot beverages. It is a classic Kashmiri combo."
Chai's Place in Pakistani and Kashmiri Culture
Because of the prized nature of Kashmiri tea leaves, Kashmiri chai was originally just a drink for royals, and even when it trickled down into other echelons of society, it was still mainly consumed at weddings—the most special of occasions for Pakistani and Indian families. But Kashmiri chai is far more mainstream in Pakistan these days; especially, Ali says, as the culture has been slowly embracing the notion of Asian-style luxury. That said, it's still not an everyday tea, more of a special treat "when you have guests over that you want to impress."
Indian-style chai may be trending now, but you'll increasingly find Kashmiri tea leaves in Indian stores across the country. So who knows? Kashmiri chai ice cream could be coming to a city near you. At the very least, it is most definitely coming to VanPakistan. "It's a fascinating type of tea," Ali says. "One of my absolute favorite flavors to use."