When I traveled to Kashmir to research my latest book, On the Himalayan Trail, I ate so many great dishes: everything from the thick, spice-laden flatbread known as bakarkhani to the richly flavored gushtaba (tender lamb or mutton meatballs cooked in a beautiful yogurt-based gravy). But it wasn’t just the food—the drinks also captured my heart.
Kashmir is a region that is known for its tea, and I fell in love with one particular tea-based drink that is unlike anything I’ve had before—noon (a.k.a. sheer) chai—which is unusual because of its sweet, salty flavor and its rosy color. It’s a drink that Kashmiris enjoy multiple times a day,especially at breakfast: sometimes on its own, sometimes with a hot flatbread.
Kashmir has long been part of an important trade route, and some believe that noon chai first came to the region from Yarkand in Turkestan where atkan chai (tea made with butter, salt, and milk) was popular. Others, however, think that it arrived with the 14th century Persian missionary Mir Syed Ali Hamdani who arrived in Kashmir with hundreds of craftsmen and artisans—as well as with noon chai, which he likely acquired a taste for as he traveled through Central Asia.
I had my first taste of noon chai at tearoom Chai Jaai in Srinagar: a striking contemporary building whose walls are handpainted in the traditional Kashmiri naquashi style. Here, owner Roohi Nazki serves traditional Kashmiri delicacies in an English tearoom–style setting—including noon chai, which I tasted alongside makai tsot, the maize-flour flatbreads also known as makki ki roti.
The first thing you’ll notice about noon chai served in the traditional way is how it’s steeped in a samovar, an ornate metal pot. The second thing you’ll notice is its color. A pink tea isn’t something you see every day.
A simple pinch of baking soda (bicarbonate of soda) is what creates the striking color of noon chai. When added to green tea, the baking soda (along with the oxidation of the tea leaves) turns the water from clear to reddish-brown. Add cold water and milk and you’ll see the color changing before your eyes. It’s wonderful for these cooler winter months.
Here’s how to make Noon Chai:
In a medium pot, bring 2½ cups cold water to a boil, then add 2 tsp. green tea leaves, 1 tsp. crushed green cardamom seeds, and 1 pinch of baking soda. Cover with a lid and simmer for 10–15 minutes. Add another ½ cup cold water, then strain, return the liquid to the pot, and add 1⅔ cups whole milk. Bring back to the boil. Keep cooking for another 10–15 minutes, then add 1 tsp. salt. Serve immediately, or keep in a Thermos flask to drink later. If you’d like, top with chopped almonds. This makes enough for two.
Adapted with permission from On the Himalayan Trail: Recipes and Stories from Kashmir to Ladakh by Romy Gill, published by Hardie Grant.