Chai means ‘tea’
“History and Etymology for chai: Turkish çay & Russian, Persian, Hindi, & Urdu chay tea” – Merriam-Webster
Diversity, inclusion, and multiculturalism are some of Canada’s defining features. Canada is home to a multitude of diasporas: cultures, religions, and nations from across the globe. This past month, Muslims across Canada and the world celebrated Ramadan, a holy month that ends with the festival of Eid-al-Fitr. Ramadan includes fasting from sun up to sun down with the breaking of the fast each night, called Iftar. Normally Iftar is celebrated with large gatherings for evening meals. Food—sometimes referred to as Iftari—is shared amongst friends and those in need.
For Muslims, Ramadan 2020 was very different. With the world engaged in various modes of pandemic lockdown, the celebrations have been quieter, marked by physical distancing protocols, empty Masjids (Mosques) and the very careful, ultra-hygienic distribution of Iftari across communities.
Some of the more traditional food and drink served at Iftar is common enough thanks to the multitude of South Asian and Middle Eastern restaurants across the country. But other Iftari are so unique, and difficult to make, that they warrant special attention.
Kashmiri chai is one such recipe.
Kashmiri chai is also known as “pink tea.” I tried it for the first time some months ago at a dinner hosted by friends. It is a recipe shared within their family. Kashmiri chai is a complex, lovely, fragrant, and aesthetic taste experience that comes with stories infused with the nostalgia of family traditions. The tea has a creamy texture, is slightly salty with strong notes of cardamom. It is typically garnished with crushed pistachios and almonds, anise, and is sometimes sweetened to taste. Its colour is, indeed, a deep pink, due to a chemical reaction of the ingredients and the temperature of the water and milk used in its production.
I have since pored over food blogs and family stories about pink tea and its origins, finding the following excerpt about the origins of Kashmiri chai:
“Nun chai is believed to indigenous to Kashmir. It [is] known by many names of its many variants, Sheer chai, Namkeen chai, Nun chai, Pink tea and of course, the Kashmiri tea.
“Tea does not grow in Kashmir. And Chinese being the exponents of tea, would export it across the Central Asian region. Kashmir, on the crossroads of Central Asia and South Asia, was an important trade center. Many foreign travelers such as the Austrian army officer, Charles von Hügel mention Nun chai in their travelogues.
“It’s widely believed that Nun chai came to Kashmir from Yarkand, in Turkestan. Incidentally, Kashmir’s first Muslim Sultan Saddruddin Shah (Rinchana) embraced Islam at the hands of Bulbul Shah (Sayed Sharafuddin Shah) who was from Kashgar in Turkestan.
“In Turkestan, Atkan chai is made with salt, milk and butter, quite similar to one made in Ladakh region, called the Gur-Gur chai. Like Nun chai, the origins of Kahva are also unclear. According to the Global tea history, it may also have its origins in the Turkic region of Turkestan, dating back to the first and second century of the Kushan Empire, in Yarkand.
“Green tea leaves are brewed in sodium bi-carbonate (phel) until a thick red-brown color extract is obtained which is called ‘tyoth’. This tyoth is then diluted with water and then salt and milk are added.
“It’s typically served with Kashmiri bagel, Czochwor with sot or with Czot. The traditional bakery is quite similar to that found in Central Asian region, especially Samarkand.
Finding pink tea in Canada
In my research, I was eager to find locations across Canada that serve Kashmiri chai or variants of it. One establishment stood out—Remedy Cafe of Edmonton. A renowned purveyor of authentic chai—Remedy Cafe boasts a storied history that exemplifies the importance of immigration and multiculturalism to Canada.
Remedy Cafe has multiple locations across Edmonton, AB and the business is owned and operated by Sohail “Zee” Zaidi.
Zaidi says he learned to cook at a very young age, and in his global travels working throughout Asia, Europe and America, he dreamed of cooking. As he travelled and worked, he built businesses. His first stint in North America was as a New York taxi driver. He then bought and ran many other businesses stateside before immigrating to Canada.
Fifteen years ago, Zaidi purchased a sandwich cafe on 109 Street and 87 Avenue in Edmonton. Knowing little about how to run a cafe, asked lots of questions of his customers and started “introducing those years of cooking in Pakistan to Edmontonians.” Within the first few years, the curries and dishes began taking shape. Lunchtime wraps filled with traditional dishes seemed like the obvious choice for mid-day eaters.
Today, Remedy Cafe offers its own takes on some of the more traditional dishes; the popularity of wraps, dosas and platters proves just how much people love them. Zaidi has opened four more locations around Edmonton, and Remedy’s chai recipes are now coveted. Restaurants throughout Alberta are selling it in their establishments.
Remedy chai is made according to original recipes, brewed over several days. The cafes serve over 120 types of teas and 70 types of beer from all over the globe. For customers with food sensitivities or diet restrictions, there are gluten/dairy-free and vegan-friendly meals, drinks, and desserts.
Remedy Cafe menu items are made with products sourced from local and Canadian producers, farmers, gardeners and bakers.
“Thank-you Edmonton for your support over the past 13 years. Without our community we wouldn’t have made it to where we are today. We believe that we need to give back as much love as we receive so we have and will continue to support as many charities and organizations that work to make our communities better places. If you know of one or would like us to get involved in yours, please contact us.” – Remedy Cafe
Zaidi reminds us all that, in life, it is vital to “be spicy and drink chai!”