On special occasions, my mom would switch up her routine and make a vibrant pink tea for us instead of the typical masala (spiced) chai. I had no idea as a child what went into this tea, but her groaning about how long it would take to prepare made it clear in my mind that it was a complicated process.
Well, “Ammi” as we call her just returned from Pakistan, and she met me at JFK airport with a bag full of green tea leaves. Yes, this gulabi (pink) concoction begins with green tea. I couldn’t find much information about it online, but this bit from Ellen’s Kitchen seems to apply:
The third type of tea is called shi:r’ cha:y or shirchai. This type is not made with bambay cha:y green tea, but with a slightly fermented tea such as an oolong. It is brewed with bicarbonate of soda, salt, whole milk, and cream (mala:y), spices and pistachios. It has a very pleasant pinkish or peachy color. Shi:r’ cha:y also is a typically Kashmiri tea, but not every visitor likes it. Salt tea is served at evry breakfast and in the afternoon. It resembles the butter tea of Tibet. Kashmiri folk say the salt is refreshing in the heat; in Mongolia and Tibet, tea is salted to resist the cold!
My mom grew up in Sialkot, which is very close to the Jammu border and Kashmir, so it’s no surprise that her family has adopted this tea and created their own variant. I made this tea (I can’t say for sure whether she brought me oolong or not) with star anise (see photo), cinnamon and cardamom, just like she does. Many serve it with blanched, chopped pistachios, but she doesn’t and neither did I. We also sweeten it in my household to balance out some of the saltiness.
So how does it go from green to pink?
I imagine it has something to do with the baking soda, the first time I’ve ever used it in something not baked, and the aeration process in the recipe.
The color has inspired a whole trend of “tea pink” fashion clothing. A few years ago, many brides swapped out the traditional red outfit with a more complementary pastel that gets its name from the color of this tea.
Here is my mom’s technique:
1. Boil 1 tbsp. of green Kashmiri tea, 1 piece of star anise, 2 cracked cardamom pods, 1/2 a cinnamon stick and a pinch each of baking soda and salt in 2 cups of water.
2. Simmer until the liquid reduces by half. Add 1 cup of cold water and an ice cube to cool the mixture. Then whisk it for a minute as if you were beating an egg for an omelet.
3. Add 4 more cups of water, return to boil and simmer uncovered for 20 minutes. Every few minutes, aerate the tea by pulling some up in a ladle and pouring it back in. This helps deepen the color.
4. Strain. This yields 6 cups of tea base that can be refrigerated for up to 3 days. When you are ready to serve the tea, begin here:
5. Boil 3/4 cup of tea base and 1/4 cup of milk per serving in a saucepan. When it begins to boil, allow the milk to froth up before pulling it off the heat. Return it to the stove and repeat the process. (This “double boil” technique is how the milk gets its distinct creaminess in masala chai as well.)
6. Add sugar to taste and serve.
This is a great cold weather treat worth trying if you can get your hands on the tea leaves. I’ve heard you can get them at ethnic grocery stores, so do ask around if you feel adventurous. Also, I’ve been told that finely chopped pistachios should be warmed up with the milk and then mixed with the tea base if you choose to use nuts. That will soften them slightly.