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Photo: Alamy
Photo: Alamy

Drink ‘kahwa’ like a Kashmiri

How to brew, serve and enjoy an aromatic cup of the quintessential Kashmiri ‘kahwa’

The Kashmiri kahwa has joined the ranks of classic tea blends, with the English Breakfast and the Earl Grey. Like the others, it has no fixed recipe, and every brand makes their version of it.

The most readily available form of kahwa tea is a green tea blend made exotic by the addition of saffron, cardamom and other spices. It’s almost the chai you make without milk. But how close is it to the original made in Kashmir?

My search led me to Azmat Ali Mir, whose Kashmiri food pop-ups have been so well received that she’s giving it a new home in Sarposh, a Kashmiri restaurant and tea room in Bengaluru. Mir is an encyclopaedia on Kashmiri food, and within minutes of meeting her, I had had my first kahwa lesson, followed by an invitation to taste the kahwa.

Sarposh’s chef Nasir is a kahwa expert from the Gurez valley in Kashmir, which falls along the old Silk Route. There was a formality to our little gathering that befitted Kashmiri culture. Like the Japanese matcha, the kahwa is not an everyday drink but a ceremonial one, book-ending the wazwan, or feast.

Poured from a samovar, the saffron kahwa shone a reddish gold, like sunlight, vibrant and fragrant. When sipped, it seemed to travel deep inside, as if warming the soul. It was a brew of water, saffron strands, cardamom pods, sugar, and was garnished with some almond slivers. It had no tea leaves.

At the heart of the kahwa are the saffron and cardamom pods, and some include tea leaves. Nasir brewed a version with tea leaves, the doodh, or milk, kahwa. It is made by boiling milk with cardamom and saffron. A pinch of green tea is added; in Kashmir, locally available green tea (very likely a Kangra tea) is used. The doodh kahwa looks like milk but tastes rich and warm. The tea in it had neither coloured the kahwa nor caught up with the taste of saffron and cardamom.

With our reference kahwa in place, we sampled a few kahwa blends chosen for their varied green tea base. The Assam green tea displayed astringency and turned bitter before the flavours of saffron and cardamom had infused. The Darjeeling greens were better but did neither the Darjeeling nor the kahwa a favour. The one that came close to the original was the blend with a Kangra green tea base. Unsurprisingly so, since Kangra valley is next to Kashmir and it’s very likely the green tea sold there. The Kangra tea is made from the Chinese strain of the tea plant—in tea parlance, chinary or China jat—and makes a fine tea that works very well for kahwa.

In choosing a kahwa blend, look for the inclusion of natural saffron and cardamom. Avoid those that use artificial flavouring or overload on spices—aim for few ingredients. To make your own kahwa blend, choose an orthodox Kangra green tea or even a gunpowder green tea (used in Moroccan mint tea) and add a few strands of Kashmiri saffron and some whole cardamom pods. Garnish with almond slivers.

TEA TAKES

The Kashmiri Kahwa blend by the Dharmsala Tea Company has a Kangra green tea base and Kashmiri saffron, which gives a vibrant colour to the cup.

Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry.

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