Kashmiri Chai : Everything you want to know in one place
This is the only article you need to read on “Kashmiri Chai.” Why? Because there’s a large amount of nonsense written about Kashmiri Chai/Pink Chai/Sheer Chai/Gulaabi Chai and rather than critiquing other people’s work I’d like, as an actual Kashmiri, to just set the record straight.
At Kashmiri Tea House we make Botanical Cold Brew Tea inspired by the Kahwa culture of Kashmir but in our early food market days, we were brewing hot pink chai for Londoners and our goal is to one day bring it to you in a ready to drink format too! From this experience I know there’s a lot of misinformation floating around about what is “Kashmiri Chai.”
Don’t get me wrong, I agree that there’s no hard ownership or monopoly over food cultures. ‘Authentic’ can mean different things to different people. When I say ‘set the record straight’ - I’m taking part in a broader effort to correct misconceptions & false narratives in food heritage. This is work which has been led by food writers of colour, as well as restaurants or cafes run by chefs with immigrant roots. In other words, people who have proximity & experience with the culture in question and can speak credibly on what is authentic.
I’d like to make this my contribution to correcting the narrative around ‘Kashmiri Chai.’
What is Kashmiri Chai?
In Kashmir, fairly obviously, we don’t call it ‘Kashmiri Chai.’ It is a dairy-based tea whose correct name is “Noon Chai”, and can also be called Pink Chai or Salt tea. The name itself comes from the tea’s most unusual ingredient : salt. ‘Noon’ in the Kashmiri language means ‘salt.’ Most names for things in the Kashmiri language are literal descriptions of the thing being named, and so the Noon Chai is named literally too. This is also the way it’s distinguished from other types of chai that are commonly consumed in Kashmir. Noon Chai is most commonly had with breakfast or as a late afternoon tea and is particularly popular in the winter.
There are different names for different types of chai.
The existence of many names for Noon chai comes partly from migration and partly from appropriation. First up, ‘Sheer Chai’ : a beverage from Afghani tea culture. While it’s prepared in a similar way to Noon Chai, the final product has a different flavour profile. The difference in name is not superficial; it’s a different tea all together, however people often assume they’re the same because of the colour. I don’t know of any definitive research that can explain who started the tradition, but it’s likely that nomadic travel across the two regions led to the existence of the two different teas which share similarities.
Next we have the terms ‘Kashmiri Chai’ and ‘Gulabi Chai’
The practise of referring to Noon Chai as “Kashmiri Chai” is most commonly found in Pakistan or Pakistani diaspora. This community’s version of Noon Chai is popularly consumed as a sweet tea, often at weddings, with the inclusion of crushed pistachios and almonds and sometimes cardamom. “Gulaabi” chai is another popular name for Noon chai in Pakistani circles. It’s a name that was coined to reference the colour of the tea, because ‘gulaab’ is the Urdu term for rose, which is also synonymous with pink things. This causes confusion since there is no Rose in Noon Chai but there is a history of Rose infusions in Kashmir. (Some brief history on the Rose infusion trade here.)
Kashmiri tea culture includes lots of different types of chai - so calling only one type of chai Kashmiri is perplexing to many Kashmiris.
Again, migration across the subcontinent, particularly during the splitting of Kashmir into two, likely meant that Kashmiris took their Noon Chai practice with them and over time this has converted to a sweet tea. I suppose Noon Chai, in its authentic form, is unlike any other chai both in colour and flavour, and so has become accidentally nationalised as the chai of Kashmir.
What is Kashmiri Chai made of?
Quite simply, Green Tea that has been harvested & dried for use in Noon Chai specifically & is predominantly from Assam, water, bicarbonate soda (just a pinch), whole milk and a dash of salt. The bright salmon pink colour is acquired by a combination of long, slow-brewing and the chemical reaction between the tea and the bicarbonate soda. In the old days (before the soda trick was discovered) Noon Chai would be made in large quantities - mostly in the morning - and the pink colour acquired by non stop ladling for hours. This process of aeration was very labour intensive so once the soda secret was uncovered, almost no one uses the old school method anymore. Due to the quantity of Green Tea used to make Noon Chai, it has considerably more caffeine than other chai.
Is Kashmiri Chai healthy?
Generally speaking, yes. The calories in Noon Chai only come from the whole milk, so barring dietary restrictions (vegan, dairy or lactose intolerance etc) it’s a healthy drink. The main reason some people abstain from Noon Chai is because of a low tolerance to acidity in food or drink. Slow-brewing Green Tea over heat creates a higher level of tannins and acidity than in a conventional hot-brewed drink and can reduce the usual antioxidant benefits of Green Tea. (More on the benefits of Cold Brewing in this article.) This isn’t bad or dangerous by any means - all hot brewed drinks (both tea and coffee) have tannins and acidity varying from one tea to the next - but it can mean some people don’t enjoy the drinking experience. Moderation, as always, is key.
At Kashmiri Tea House, one of our goals is to bring a high quality, natural and accessible Noon Chai to the market.
This is a lot harder than you may imagine. There are many pseudo-Noon Chai options in the market made with artificial ingredients, different sweeteners and random ingredients which simply don’t go in Noon Chai. Kashmiri Tea House was founded with the desire to honour the tea culture of Kashmir, so for us - taking the time to produce the best possible version, made with natural ingredients, in a ready to drink format is key.
For example we launched the Botanical Cold Brew Tea after a full year of product development & research. This is a range inspired by Kashmiri Kahwa culture and blends heritage with the needs of busy city-dwellers like me. If you’re caffeine sensitive, running a busy schedule, are looking for delicious flavours and not willing to compromise on quality & health - you’re who we had in mind while building this business. We’re taking the same approach for our future Noon Chai range so if this speaks to you - watch this space.
In the meantime, we also cater Noon Chai for parties & events. Get in touch if you’d like to hire us. We can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org
You can also join the mailing list to be notified of any upcoming Afternoon Tea events where the samosas, chai & chat is free flowing.