Delhiwale: The last days of the noon chai
A freezing morning, 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 can afford to escape from the harsh cold of their native 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. 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.
The noon chai acquires its colour due to the addition of bicarbonate of soda. The brew is not everybody’s cup of tea. 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 they land of its origin. You sit amid people talking in Kashmiri. Some of them are dressed in pherans. There are also elderly men and women, and children. It is perhaps like lounging on a street corner in Anantnag or Pahalgam.
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 9am, about the same time the rest of the shops in the bazar begin to open.
As the Delhi winter enters its final stage, the noon chai is set to go back to Kashmir.