Giving Food in Kashmir

A lot happens over the dastarkhwan. Food comes in handy as the practical short form for love. My grandmother (like most grandmothers ) knew only two ways to show concern – making the person eat and praying for them, often together. We spread our dasterkhwan wide, just in case. In an apt symbolism, the traditional dasterkhwan (dining cloths) used to be a piece of rolled cloth which could be extended if more people arrived at mealtime.

When it comes to gifting food in Kashmir, however, nothing beats bakery. Much like boxes of confectionery in other parts of the world, we carry brown paper bags of something baked. If a child passes matric, some aunt is sure to drop by with a dozen or a half of plain cakes. Or even as many pastries. (Matriculaion is a big event in Kashmir even today.) Presenting bakery is an established gifting custom in Srinagar and, by God, we have a lot to choose from. From traditional baked fare like bakerkhwanis or the flaky puffs to all types of cakes and pastries, bakeries are well stocked in Kashmir. They do a brisk business throughout the year, but more so during the results of class 10th or 12th, or when the Haj pilgrims depart or return on the two Eids and throughout the marriage season. Yes, it is a booming enterprise and almost all bakeries have their loyal customers. The erstwhile basraq and naabed-nout (which was a vessel made from sugar crystals) are not considered fashionable anymore in the city. There was a time when, in Srinagar, sweetmeats and confectioneries were limited in availability and options. This has largely changed over the years, and brought in a new wedding custom of sending a copper tray full of assorted sweets.

But nothing says celebration like the good ol’ wazwan. While cakes are a standard, wazwan isn’t considered too outlandish a gift on certain occasions. Of course for that, as in life, you have to pick your moment. Families of  to be married couples frequently exchange trays of wazwan delicacies – a trayful of whole chicken, or ristas or may be the full wazwan – a few pieces of each item (seven in all). Of course the receiving side doesn’t keep all of it to itself – it is further parceled it off to as many siblings and cousins as it can be. Gifting wazwan to people outside Kashmir is even easier now, now that it is available packaged in tins.

As our customs progress with time there is a timeless tradition of giving almonds in felicitation. There is something about the hay coloured, paisley shaped dry fruit that speaks Kashmir like nothing else. During weddings, almonds and toffees and ten rupees notes folded in fans are showered on the bride and the groom from copper trays. Students are given packets of almonds on passing exams. Just about any celebration is incomplete without a few kilos of almonds popping up somewhere. (There is also a wedding song dedicated to almonds). In rural areas, walnuts are given in place of almonds.

Winters are the season for harissa, and our long winters would be longer without it. If you know a high ranking bureaucrat, know for sure that he or she will be receiving a pot of harissa in winters! Again, families of to-be-married or newly married couples send harissa to each other, as they do cooked fish. Fish in Kashmir is fried and slow cooked with vegetables for hours and hours and served cold. (And prepared in secret, without fanfare till ready.)

I am not aware of the gifting norms in villages, but when I visited an acquaintance in a village his family would not let me return empty handed. Quickly was the greenest gourd clipped from the vine, and a dozen or so aubergines and a fresh kohlrabi and packed for me to carry back to the city. Another acquaintance from Islamabad, make sit a point to send a box of sweet Islamabad kulchas on every Eid, for old times’ sake.

Recently, on one occasion I was about to leave the shrine of Syed Sahab at Sonwar, when a woman handed me a tin foil box of halwa, I put it in my pocket and thanked her.  On most days, in one part of the city or the other, you will find someone distributing taher to wayfarers and passersby. There is no one particular reason why taher would be prepared – from a good news (like engagement, passing exams) to bad news (like illness) from seeing nightmares to ward off the evil eye. On specific days people prepare food to be given in charity. Each revered saint has a day, 3rd of each lunar month for Naqshband Sahab, 6th for Hazrat Ameer Kabir RA, 11th for Ghous-ul Azam Dastgeer, 13th for Sheikh Hamza Makhhdoomi  RA, so on and the devotees give out food on those days. It is a centuries old custom and the food could be anything from nun chai to a complete wazwan. We are a simple traditional people, but we have our quirks.

We have preserved this generosity of spirit through the most difficult of times. Whenever the city has been ravaged by war, we have tried to trace our steps back. Diminished, but not extinguished. In 2010 when tourists were trapped in hotels due to the curfews and unrest, the small bed and breakfast establishments ran out of food. People around the localities provided supplies including fuel to cook the food everyday, till all the tourists could leave. just last year in the months of curfew, people donated food and meat to the community kitchens at hospitals. I wonder, will we escape all wars unscathed. But hope lies at the bottom of the taeher daeg and you have to divvy up the yellow rice for it to be spread all round.

PS: For the uninitiated “taher” is a rice preparation dyed yellow with turmeric and fried lightly, topped with browned onions.  It is what you see in the picture above.

(Thank you, Ms. Marryam H Reshii, for your invaluable inputs)

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Somehow We Survived

I will be repeating myself when I say that Srinagar is a cold, cold place. The wind blows little needles in the face and waters the eyes. In my dreamy, detached, ever hopeful existence, Srinagar is so many miles away that the only things that anchor me to reality are the cold and tea. And by tea I mean Nun Chai with its ever comforting warmth like a hug from a worthy friend.

Early this year, I remember telling a friend that this is going to be a good year. We were going on the Boulevard Road and the sun was about to set on a day in the prime of spring. He agreed. Now, we are just moving from a curfew and lock down of five months. Everyone who knows anything about us knows that this is a fragile, fragile situation. Kashmir is like a samovar full of tea, with embers keeping it simmering all the time.

Among the many disappointments we had this year, I will remember with gratitude the sanctuary nun chai afforded me as we spent the summer locked up inside our homes, reading and watching the leaves turn. Outside, the curfews raged, and so many young men were killed. Everyday we mourned for them. Everyday we died a little. Everyday we made tea and thanked God that we are getting by. The leaves faded from green to gold and then left the trees barren; and the skies shifted from blue to gray. The colour of my brew was still pink. Like roses the colour of broken promises.

But somehow we survived. My friends (and sometimes random people one meets by happenstance) from India ask me how did we manage for so many days with no markets open and little money. I have no answer. We just did – with patience and some luck. And lots of resilience. I spent some weeks of the year in Delhi. I had nun chai over there too. A pale, milky brew it came out. Quite out of place. Like the stranger in me. Its flavour lost in the heat of India’s plains. There is no decent way to reconcile to the disappointment of a vile cup of tea. I needed to be back home.

As we end this year on a very somber note with the war raging in one part of the world and uncertainty looming over ours, I look at this empty cup of nun chai. The spent dark brown leaves have collected at the base. Someone may stare at the shape to read the tea leaves. Will the coming year lose its promise in the prime of spring too?

This has been a long, long year. The summer never seemed to end and the autumn dragged its feet – its cold, beautiful, scarred feet. I don’t want to sound pedantic. On days like these I find heart in the fact, that when everything goes wrong there will be nun chai to fall back to. It is the promise of a very old custom. It shall forever bring me back home.

(PS: Today is “International Tea Day”, and thank you Mr. Ross Chambers for suggesting that I write something about Nun Chai on this day. I must thank the shared joy of nun chai for being the source of many a conversation on social media with strangers and a lot of inspiration. On that note, I had this year before the curfews began a memorable occasion of having nunchai in the huts of very friendly nomads in a meadow tucked somewhere in the mountains of Baramulla. Prepared freshly on a wood fire, the tea was as buttery as salty it was and had a very subtle but distinct aroma of smoke.)

For a recipe of nun chai check this post.

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Czot

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.

Four

I feel profoundly for this blog. From the title, to the words that go in it. It is me in ways I never thought I would be me. Or could be.

Four years down and it feels like home. With rooms to escape and balconies to stand on. With windows to see the world through. And doors to let people in.

I have interacted with some amazing people through this space. And been called names by others.

We take what we get. Thank you for being here. For all the comments, likes, shares and follows.

Happy Fourth, Rich Autumns.
(Four years ago, I was still debate the logic and timing for a blog. But November it is!)

The Samovar Tweet-story

The Inside of a Cup

Precisely at the moment I lost it, it became precious. Like lost lyrics to the songs which you remembered by heart once.

There was no bread to be had, no czochwour and no company. Srinagar was a cool breezy house where afternoon echoed in through open doors. Empty. There was some nun chai, I was sure. But I didn’t know how to make it. It was something that was already at home, waiting to be heated and had.

I let the nun chai brew. A bit hesitatingly, not sure if this is the right way. Something so famously complicated couldn’t have such a simple beginning. Or could it? The dried crisp leaves danced in the boiling water. It needs to be boiled, for hours and hours, of that I was sure. In the old days, when electricity was really poor in Srinagar and the voltages fluctuated wildly, nun chai was prepared in a thick bottomed vessel, four hours together on a electric heater. That changed with times. When families used to be large and people had too much time and, often too many servants, the samavars were heated in the morning and would brew the nun chai perfectly for hours before serving. Of course, the pot bellied copper samavars are the most authentic way to have nun chai.

But not today. Not for me. The tea lacked colour. And even though the aroma was the same nostalgic fragrance which at once reminded me of my mother’s blue winter shawl the colour was absent. I was missing the soda, phol, sodium bicarbonate. The magic ingredient which draws out all the flavour and colour from the tea leaves. Of course, it does that slowly too. The tea bubbled a little as the powder dissolved into it and then died. The electric induction cooker did its usual hum and the tea went back to boiling just as it was.Nun chai draws from the slow humdrum life of Kashmir, taking patience and labour to get the work done. Though, in case of nun chai as I found out, there isn’t much work involved at all.

Fifteen minutes.

Friends” was playing on the television and that was perhaps why I lost track of time. And perhaps because I was keeping myself company, I also noticed how throughout the seasons of Friends it is Monica with her giving nature who binds the friends together. How her fridge was always stocked up for friends to arrive at all hours and feel at home.

Half and hour, may be. I had lost count.

The afternoon dropped temperatures. Srinagar was now a million miles away. It was a memory written on the tea stains on the inside of a cup. It was the pleasant aroma of the inside of my mother’s shawl on an autumn afternoon.