The driver who took me from Punjab to Kashmir, India, estimated the ride to be around eight hours, 10 if we ran into traffic, which he assured me was inevitable. After spending the past few days wandering through India’s Golden Temple of Amritsar, I was ready to hit the road and didn’t blink at the double-digit journey to Srinagar.
At first I enjoyed the quick stops we made at the dhabas, roadside stands serving hot, homemade meals that are a ubiquitous feature on any road trip in India. As we gained momentum, our speed slowed to a steady but painful crawl up the Himalayan two-lane highways we shared with what seemed like every truck in the nation. The air thinned, and the dhaba stops became more frequent in an effort to break up the monotony. By the fourth egg omelet — a fried egg wrapped around a piece of toast and grilled — my mouth dried up at the sight of them and I declined to get out of the car. We were 14 hours in, and I wanted nothing else but to get there.
It was early November and our anemic car heater didn’t stand a chance against the clutch of an early winter. Then we stopped altogether in a massive traffic jam in the middle of the night on top of a mountain.
The driver, who had not said a word to me in 17 hours, explained that an avalanche had blocked off the road miles ahead and we would need to wait for it to be cleared. Hours passed in the cold, black night with nothing to think about but how much I wished I had not passed up my last opportunity for an egg omelet.
At last we were on our way, climbing and climbing until we finally arrived at my hotel on the edge of Dal Lake, famous for its elaborate houseboats and shikaras, the Kashmiri version of a gondola.
The entrance gate was locked, and no one answered when I rang the bell over and over in what I feared might be a futile attempt to find a bed that night. At last the hotel owner wiped his sleepy eyes as he walked to the gate, then showed me to my room, where I wanted to sleep for days.
Kahwah tea an ancient tradition
A knock on my door late the next morning woke me.
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“I am sorry to bother you ma’am, but would you like some tea?” asked the man who stood before me, wearing a black linen suit buttoned up to his neck.
“I would love some tea. Thank you so much. No sugar, please,” I said to avoid the sugar-bomb chai served everywhere in India.
“Ma’am, if I may invite you to tea at our restaurant? We have a special tea here in Kashmir that will warm and restore you after your long journey.”
I wanted nothing more than to return to my bed, but I couldn’t turn down someone so polite and I reluctantly followed him to the dining room. This was my first opportunity to see Kashmir in the daylight, and even from the vantage point of my hotel, it was glorious. Soaring, snowcapped mountains and the freshest air my lungs had inhaled for ages were already doing a number on my exhaustion; I was now looking forward to the restorative elixir he promised.
“Would you like to join us in the kitchen, ma’am, to learn how this tea is prepared? We read a little about you after you made your booking, curious as to why someone would venture to Kashmir so late in the season. When we saw your interest in food, we suspected you were coming for the saffron harvest. I believe you would enjoy learning about our special kahwah tea. We are very proud of it in Kashmir.”
I was, indeed, there for the saffron festival, and I could not resist his offer. “I would be honored,” I told the man, who later told me his name was Ashish.
Inside the kitchen, several cooks gathered round as the head chef, Kiran, gathered the ingredients he needed. He crushed up cinnamon and cardamom pods, adding them to boiling water that he sprinkled with cloves and threads of saffron. He let it boil for a few moments before spooning green tea into it, the aroma of hospitality filling my nose.
The Kashmiri tradition of kahwah tea is so ancient, its origin was lost long before the conflicts between Kashmir and Pakistan began. Pakistanis drink it too, as do the Afghanis. Some say the Chinese were the first to drink kahwah, but it’s likely that most Kashmiris, whose spirits are infused with the tradition of their beloved tea, would disagree. They greet their mornings and conclude their days with it; finding in it solace from the hardships they have endured.
Ashish led me to an outdoor table that Kiran carefully arranged with a tea cup, saucer, kettle and small bowls of honey and crushed almonds. The kitchen staff gathered around, and I felt foolish drinking on my own. There was enough kahwah to go around, and I asked if everyone could join me.
Additional saucers and cups were collected from the kitchen as Ashish sprinkled almonds into my cup and drizzled them with honey. He poured the tea from high above, a golden line of kindness making its way from his kettle to my cup. The air smelled like cinnamon and the tea warmed my spirit, vanquishing fatigue and filling me with gratitude.
Makes 2 cups
1 cinnamon stick, crushed
2 cardamom pods, crushed
3-inch knob of ginger, crushed
2 cups water
4 threads of saffron
1 tablespoon green tea
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon crushed almonds or walnuts
1. Combine the cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer for 2 minutes before adding the cloves, saffron and tea.
2. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 5 minutes more.
3. Remove from the heat and cover to infuse for 10 more minutes. Strain through a sieve.
4. Drizzle honey into cups, sprinkle it with almonds and pour the tea.
Top photo: The ingredients for kahwah and a prepared cup. Credit: Sandeep Patwal