Remembering Ladakh with a Cup of Kahwa

Thick clouds of dust rose behind us as our white gypsy meandered through the narrow alleys of Leh in Ladakh to reach our hotel from the Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport. By the time we reached the hotel,  all I wished for was a cup of piping hot tea to bring back my senses and a comforting pillow to rest my aching head. The breathtaking view, which I could see from my window seat, of the snow-clad peaks and the meandering blue of the rivers in the Himalayan valleys, had succeeded in keeping me awake during the early morning flight from Delhi to Leh. As I walked into the high altitude airport of Leh situated at 3256m above sea level, everything around me seemed to be moving at half the regular speed. A recording of a sober female voice played on the airport speakers giving us instructions not to move briskly and to take adequate rest during our first day in Leh. The airport staff dressed in long woolen Gouchas walked languidly about their chores. The temperature outside was seemingly low even though the sun had risen quite high above the horizon. Fatigue had already crept over me because of the reduced content of oxygen in the air.

Aerial view of ladakh - taken from flight

The aerial view of the town of Leh

After a quick exchange of wishes and an introduction with the hotel manager at the Ladakh Himalayan Retreat Hotel, we were shown to the in-house restaurant for a welcome drink. Traditional Buddhist paintings in bright colors of red, green, yellow and blue decked up the walls of the restaurant. A cornucopia of local art made of wood, metal, and porcelain placed on the walls and in the corners of the restaurant beautifully complemented the colorful walls. As I sat on the traditional wooden sofa in the restaurant lobby, I was introduced to Kahwa, a delectable cup of tea from Kashmir which has since become my favorite.

I could sense the heavenly aroma of Kahwa even before I took a sip off the bone china cup. The tea was clear with no milk and had a lovely tint of deep amber. As I savored each sip of Kahwa, I could taste the distinct flavors of the different spices in it. The sweetness of the cardamon and cinnamon greatly complemented the mild pungent flavor of saffron and the bitter flavor of the green tea leaves while the nutty flavor imparted by the chunks of almonds blended well with the honey to make it taste like nectar on every sip. Through the lobby window, I could see a couple of magpies hopping between the poplar trees which lined the periphery of the hotel compound. Loose puffs of clouds brushed past the snow-clad peaks of the Stock ranges behind the foreground. None of that seemed appealing to me as I relished the second helping of Kahwa.

Kashmiri Kahwa served in a Khos

Kashmiri Kahwa served in a shallow porcelain cup

Photo source: Youtube

The term Kahwa has its origin from the Arabic word Qahwah which means exciting the spirit and was mostly used to refer to the brew made of beans. It has been a part of the local consumption of the state of Kashmir and regions like Afghanistan,  Gilgit Baltistan and some parts of central Asia since eons. It is believed that it originated in the Yarkand valley in Xinjiang Area of China.  As Kashmir was one of the major trading hubs on the Silk Road, the region was influenced by the tastes and ingredients from various cultures spread across the trade route and that is how Kahwa would have been introduced to the region.
An ornate Kashmiri samovar made of copper

An ornate Kashmiri samovar made of copper

Photo source: Wiki Creative Commons


Kahwa is traditionally prepared in an ornate brass pot named Samovar which has a central cavity to hold hot charcoal. A second cavity surrounding the central cavity is where water is boiled along with the exotic spices along with a few strands of saffron and some crushed Kashmiri green tea leaves.  The ingredients are left in the samovar till the flavors are infused well. The charcoal cavity in the Samovar ensures that the tea remains hot in the container for long. Once the brew is ready, it is transferred into shallow cups made of brass called Khos. A spoon of honey or sugar is added based on preference to add more sweetness. A generous helping of almond gratings is sprinkled on top before serving.

Kahwa is loved for the warming effect it provides in cold climates. It is caffeine free and yet has the ability to boost concentration and immunity because of the rich spices infused into it. The fact that it aids in digestion has resulted in the practice of having Kahwa after meals in most of the Kashmiri households. The goodness of Kahwa is marketed by many tea brands in instant tea bags. So, if you are not in the mood to spend a long time to brew that ecstatic cup of Kashmiri Kahwa on a cold winter evening, you know there is instant help available wrapped in tiny muslin packets.

It has been over 6 months since I have returned from my trip to Ladakh but I remember every detail of my visit as if it happened yesterday. As I curl up in my cozy couch with a warm cup of homemade Kahwa on a cool winter evening, the nostalgia of the ecstatic time I had at Ladakh induces an intense Saudade in me. Have you ever felt such connection with any food or a beverage that would bring back memories of the destination where you tried it first?

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