City Food – Kashmiri ‘Noon’ Chai, Around Jama Masjid
The pink tea.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
A freezing morning certainly, but no snow, no mountain, and no valley. Yet, you see people of Kashmir snugly absorbed in their traditional breakfast of the noon chai and lavassa roti.
Every winter, budget hotels around the Mughal-era Jama Masjid in Old Delhi are occupied by those fortunate Kashmiris who could afford to escape from the harsh cold of their land. They arrive in the city with their families and stay in the Old Quarter until the end of the season. These winter refugees are most visible during the morning hours when the tea stalls near the historical mosque start filling up with them. At this time of the year, these shacks not only serve the usual milky-brown Delhi tea, but also the pink noon chai, the tea of Kashmir.
A salty tea, noon chai acquires its colour due to the addition of bicarbonate of soda. The brew is not everybody’s cup of chai. It defies the Delhi tradition by not being sugary at all. It is actually salty. Poet Ameer Dehlavi of Old Delhi’s Haji Hotel, who married a Kashmiri, says, “I like everything about Kashmir but the noon chai has not won my heart yet.”
Even so, the point of having noon chai in Old Delhi’s winter mornings is not in its acquired taste, but in experiencing the illusion of being transported to a land that most of us identify with beauty and violence. You sit amid people talking in Kashmiri. Some of them are dressed in pheran. There are also elderly men and women, and children. It is like lounging on a street corner in Anantnag or Pahalgam. All of this becomes possible because of a humble glass of noon chai.
The noon chai stalls open early in the morning, as soon as the loudspeakers from Jama Masjid start calling out to the faithful to wake for the fajr prayer. Some of the stalls keep the tea hot in giant, elaborately sculpted samovars—a sight as impressive as any small monument in the area. The stalls close by 9 am, about the same time as the rest of the bazaar shops begin to open.
As the Delhi winter enters its final stage, the noon chai is set to go back to Kashmir.