Tea, talks and tasty treats: Brewing Culture on The Bund

Roohi Nazki with her staff at Chai Jaai/ GK Photo

A small quaint white fence and a carefully laid out cobbled landing alongside the Jhelum Bund is bound to attract your attention. As you enter the big black Victorian door, complete with a knocker, you step into another realm. Lilting ethnic music to the ear and a tasteful display of beautiful local decorative crafts is treat for the eye. As you settle down to order food to please the palate, your appetite is vetted by the refreshing aroma of food.

Chai Jaai, the tea room on the Bund, welcomes you warmly even on a cold frosty winter morning.

Inspired by the tea rooms in picturesque Cotswolds, England. Chai Jaai, or CJ as its regular patrons call it, brings Kashmiri sensibilities to a British concept.

At Chai Jaai, you’ll find a thoughtful collection of rare and where locally consumed Kashmiri teas sit alongside globally served ones.

From the wide variety of teas to savour, what regularly tops the charts is Noon Chai, the heavily brewed salt tea, a rural Kashmiri staple. If you are in a mood to experiment, don’t miss the Noon chai latte, a fusion.

But that’s not all.

The tea is served in artistic ceramic and bone china tea ware that is as beautiful to look at it is to use. As a regular visitor puts it, “what makes Chai Jaai unique as an eatery is its traditional Kashmiri soul and a modern global sensibility”. In one word, it is an experience for the customers.

For the owner Roohi Nazki, it is a like a baby, “Chai Jaai is a personal passion and a belief project.” Started it in 2016 with the interiors were done using the genius of the Kashmiri artisans.

An entire wall adorned with papier-mâché naqashi, a passageway lined with long forgotten khanyar tiles and steaming samovars create an experiential medley of all things Kashmiri.

No wonder then, it is one of the most photographed hang outs in the Valley. Be it Bollywood actress Alia Bhatt or film maker Subhash Ghai, or just about everyone who comes over, a selfie at CJ is seemingly a must, which eventually finds its way into their social media.

Reviving traditions

The breadth and subtlety of Kashmir’s flavors are wafting on to plates in new and surprising ways, says noted food critic and prominent writer Marryam H Reshi.

Reshii, who has been writing about food and life- style for over 30-years, visited Chai Jaai and reviewed the place. “I paid my homage to some of Kashmir’s food/hospitality icons. Roohi Nazki has conceptualized Chai Jaai as an English tea house with equal elements of Kashmiri and English countryside elements,” she says.

Housed in one of the few remaining heritage buildings on the historic Bund, the menu comprises many varieties of teas and snacks like cookies, locally sourced breads and, incredibly, spring rolls with wild Kash- miri greens in them.

Roohi is always up to something new, whether it is devising board games for her cus- tomers or having velvet cushions embroidered with gold thread. The upshot is that Chai Jaai is on the must-visit list of every visitor to the Valley as well as a wide swath of residents of Srinagar: the press and bureaucratic fraternities and young trendy people who are in sync with the creation of a space that celebrates Kashmiri ethos and its place in the world.    

A set of young parents had got their 8 year old daughter to “educate” her about “czaedwar”, a local one pot meal made by kids for fun. CJ introduced this almost for- gotten popular tradition of yesteryears. Last winter, they introduced a handmade copper Harrisa Pot, designed to keep the all-time winter great piping hot.

Roohi Nazki has been working on many besides serving a range of ‘quality food servic- es’. She has been working on giving a platform to the local artisans (and some home cooks too) by showcasing their creativity and cuisine. For the last two years, she has been seeding an innova- tive project, Pyala. Using papier mache naqashi to create a first its kind line hand- painted tea ware.

The project employs local craftsmen with a stake in the venture by getting a share in the profits. According to her, ‘Chai, Tsot and Pyala were a sort of  natural  progression for Chai Jaai.

And each of these involve a deep sense of pride in being Kashmiri and also a commitment to add value and innovate to reinvigorate the elements that comprise this identity.

Kashmiri to the core

“The feeling of seeing Kashmir expressed in that way was wonderful. The key mission is to make the tea room inclusive, to revive what we have lost, and to celebrate Kashmir,” says Nazki. Indeed, tagline of Chai Jaai is Kashmiri to the Core, and its corporate avatar is a company called Gulkand Hues Lifestyle Private Limited. Everything has Kashmir around it.

“That local artisans are getting buyers like Chai Jaai or others, it is a great thing for the artisan community,” says Hearty. She believes that ‘art doesn’t die’ if people come forward to take it ahead. Nazki believes that for nurturing, preserving and re-imagining art and spaces of art and culture, a safe and vibrant ecosystem is to be developed. In a way CJ is doing its bit just for that.

“To get a perfect cup of tea in the most authentic way with serene settings and hand- crafted walls and interiors, Chai Jaai is a must visit place in Srinagar,” says, journalist and a visual storyteller, Namisha Raj.

“It is great catching up with friends at Chai Jaai. Having a meaningful ambiance around adds to your conversations. C J is a perfect place for me. It is very well done and the owner has put a lot of effort in decorating the place and giving extra hand to our local artisans in designing the place,” says a young entrepreneur, Feroz Hussain.

After having returned recently from Dubai, he has been regular at Chai Jaai, a place he finds “quite exotic”. “We have to promote our own brands and generate employment for our own people and I compliment Chai Jaai management for doing so,” Hussain says.

Professional turns entrepreneur

Nazki worked as senior instructional designer in Mumbai. A writer with over 25 years of experience in the design and development of e-Learning courseware and digital content and communication design. At the top notch e-learning company, Tata Interactive Services, she was designing and developing online courses across diverse industry sec- tors, geographies and disciplines. She says while working on the e-learning company, she realized how much she would miss Kashmir. “When I got back, I saw Kashmir from a different perspective. I was part local, part traveler or part tourist,” she says.

“It is not just a tea room; we want to make it a space where we can hold cultural conversations,” she says. “I come from Bandipora, spent my childhood in Madin Sahab Downtown and did my schooling from Convent. Lots of mixes and I want to make sure that we have respect for each other’s cultural ethos,” she says.

When Chai Jaai happened

After coming back to Kashmir, a chance meeting with Jagdish Mehta, owner of the iconic photographers and studio, Mahatta. They got talking and Nazki was moved by how much Mehta loved Kashmir. He had never left his home, even in the worst of
times. The idea of the tea room struck then, and there was no looking back from that moment on.

Inspired by a solo trip she  had  taken to the Cotswolds in England and by the British Tudor architecture of Mr Mehta’s building, Nazki decided that the tea room would be a fusion of Kashmiri and English culture.

She says setting up was a huge challenge.

She could not get a proper designer, and  nobody  had  time  in their schedule to come to Srinagar.

So she designed the entire place herself. “I designed Chai  Jaai  in  a  way that  I   would design a learning experience. From a user’s perspective, that is.

Even the running of the cafe is done by me using the principles of design and quality management. It is an interesting experience for me personally as a professional.’

Trolling and Trade

While CJ has a strong and positive presence on the social media, it was heavily trolled about a year back. Nazki says few people on the social net- working sites made things really unpleasant and difficult for her “passion project.” “Some people can get really vicious. I get very disturbed when people come up and post filthy comments about you.”

However, she says that she has a lovely team and a bunch of CJ loyalists who have been hugely supportive.

On the troll’s perception of CJ being an expensive hangout feedback, Nazki says that they did a comparative analysis of prices with similar cafes in the city and realised that we are actually cheaper than some places. “Of course, one is also paying for the experience, but come and check for yourself”, she says.

Creating a Safe Cultural Space

Nazki says a lot of girls come to her hangout and enjoy being at their own with safe cultural space around. “Many girls have thanked
me. They say that CJ is a place they can finally breathe in. They feel  it is a safe space, where they don’t
feel what they usually feel.”

She says that the staff has to the place quite often and it is been trained to be warm and respectful to all the customers. The space has been done up in a comfortable way. “It is done up like a house, and has a feminine angle, given that I designed it,” she  says.

“It is not just a tea room; we want to make it a space where we can hold share a moment of happiness with our friends and family, It is as simple as that”.

Chai Jaai is a place for chai, conversations and culture. Besides, it is a place reviving Kashmiri traditions and long forgotten local delicacies albeit with a distinctive and unique contemporary vibe.

Spirit of inclusivity

With Christmas just around the corner, Chai Jaai has been decorated like the proverbial Christmas tree. In fact, for the festivals and auspicious occasions, CJ is at its best.

In keeping with the spirit of inclusivity, the Chai Jaai team marks and celebrates every major religious festival in a big way, be it Eid, Herath, or Christmas or even a change of seasons. Badam and zafraan phulai (almond and saffron blossoms) are ushered in with great enthusiasm.

A couple of years back, a poetry session was held in the saffron fields of Pampore.

“Our Christmas celebration has always been popular and we always make it a point to keep adding to our experiential repertoire. It also provides a happy occasion to showcase and give something back to our respected artisans,” says Roohi Nazki.

Many restaurants may do it as a sales and marketing strategy but at CJ it is an occasion to promote local crafts; all the decorations are local handicrafts, in particular papier-mâché artefacts showcasing the workmanship of local artisans while also supporting the local businesses by buying from them.

“It is so lovely to see this place brewing and so warm with cultural happenings,” says Maria Hearty, who has been living in Kashmir for over 25 years.

“I have been coming to the place quite often and it is always enchanting and delightful to see work of local artisans getting showcased here,” she says

Chai Jaai has been hosting many in-house festivals where conversations would be focused around reviving memories of Kashmir. They
had live art installations, street food pop ups, cultural shows and talks.

“For me it’s more than a tea room (chai place). It’s a place many people come to experience the cultural space we have created,” she says. “Chai Jaai is also a place, where people, art, sugar, salt, opinions and tea all seamlessly mix with each other to give richness to conversation.”