Nawab Gul has a challenge. Try making green tea kehwa anywhere in Pakistan but it can never beat Peshawar’s. It has a secret ingredient.
“It is the water of Peshawar that makes the tea tastier,” he says. “It is God’s gift to us.”
Few Pakistanis will disagree with Nawab Gul, who has worked at a kehwa khana or tea house in Qissa Khwani bazaar for 16 years. The kehwa here is unbeatable. Some food bloggers have wagered that the secret is not so much the water, but how long they simmer the brew or add crushed cardamom or rinse the leaves before brewing. It isn’t entirely clear what exactly in the water makes the difference.
You will get the best kehwa in Qissa Khwani bazaar and kehwa khanas as relieved that peace has returned in enough measure to encourage people to start hanging out in public spaces again. Ten years of conflict, bomb blasts, threats and grenade attacks made people too nervous to stay out like they used to. Otherwise, historically, places such as Qissa Khwani bazaar in Peshawar were crowded.
Qissa Khwani or the story-teller’s bazaar has a special connection to kehwa as well. It used to be the camping grounds for caravans and the British military. Merchants from Samarkand, Bokhara, Afghanistan and India converged here, as it was the hub of Peshawar’s trade with Central Asia. This was also the place where the tea trade made a pit-stop. Tea itself was discovered in China in the 16th Century and became popular over the centuries with Islamic societies as an alternative to wine. In the 1800s, it was supplied by the Parsee and Persian merchants in Bombay, who brought it for export on the Yang-tse-kiang, shipped it to Karachi, and sent it north by way of Peshawar, Kabul and Herat into Bokhara and Samarkand.
The green tea destined for Russian samovars passed through Peshawar. This trade left its mark, which is why even today you will find one or two silver samovars still standing in Qissa Khwani bazaar—the cheaper steel one has replaced this heritage item in general. Thirty-six-year-old Raheem, whose father owns a tea house, says that their silver samovar is older than him. “The steel one is not useful and it does not make the kehwa tasty.” The word samovar in Russian is derived from “сам” or “sam” meaning self and “варить” or “vareeth”, meaning to boil.
Sheen chai became such an important part of the culture in the North-West Frontier Province that it was inseparable from conversation. Tea houses were such a good business that they attracted people from hard-up places such as Fata. Raheem, who has been working at his father’s kehwa khana since childhood, says that his father left their home in Mohmand Agency forty years ago to move to Peshawar to do this work.
However, when the troubles began ten years ago businesses took a hit. A bomb at Qissa Khwani bazaar was enough to scare people off from coming for an evening cup of tea and a round-table discussion on the state of life. These bloody memories are still fresh in people’s minds but the return of peace and the yearning to get together is eclipsing the lingering fears of attacks on bazaars.
“Business had become very slow because of extremism but now life is coming back and people visit kehwa khanas in bigger numbers,” testifies Shahzeb Mohmand, who owns a tea house.
But as the tea houses in Qissa Khwani bazaar start to feel a little comfortable, they are also being forced to acknowledge that kehwa has rivals. Tastes are changing, so establishments such as Gloria Jean’s have cropped up. “There many kehwa khanas in the historic Qissa Khwani bazaar and they were the only remaining signs of the city’s history,” says manager Abdul Samad. “But now they have been replaced by ice cream and juice points.”
At 50 rupees a glass, milkshakes, for example, earn a stall much more than kehwa at 20 rupees a kettle. The leaf is also stiffly priced at Rs800 a kg from Afghanistan. That said, Gloria Jean’s still offers green tea free after meals because, quite simply, breaking from tradition is easier said than done. “This is our small contribution to keep it alive.”