Jul 28, 2018 | 7 Mins
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Placed as the crown of India, Kashmir is nature’s gift to mankind. Situated amidst the Himalayan ranges, the area is blessed with a bounty of fresh and local produce such as saffron and lotus stem that are put to use in food in various ways. Kashmiri Muslim and Kashmiri Pandit are the two halves of Kashmiri cuisine. Both showcase meat as the central element in a meal, use saffron as the main spice, lotus stem is a common dish and rice forms the base of every spread. But their individual cooking methods set these two cuisines far apart.
A Wazwan in a multi-course meal consisting of 36 courses, mostly meat dishes made with lamb or chicken and some vegetarian options. ‘Waz’ means cooking while ‘wan’ means shop. The chef heading out these arduous processes of preparing a Wazwan is called ‘Vaste Waze’ and the junior cook is called ‘Waza’. During marriages, people are divided into groups of four and each group shares the meal from a traem (copper platter). It is laden with a huge heap of rice and a variety of mutton dishes such as seekh kebabs, tabakh maaz (mutton ribs) and more are placed on top of that. Kashmiri Muslims and Kashmiri Pandits, both enjoy a wazwan - the difference lies in the distinct cooking preparations and ingredients used for each. Every dish that is part of this grand state of affairs required technical perfection and patience. Today, the new generation in a Waza family are moving away from preserving these traditional cooking methods since they are require great precisions and hardwork. But there are still some families who are preserving this ancient culinary heritage and earn a living by preparing Wazwans for marriages.
Authenticook home chef Vipula and her husband (an ex-army officer) are Punjabis but Vipula had the chance of learning Kashmiri cooking from a Waza. “They teach you patiently and the experience of learning from a Waza was very good.” Since she prepares both, Punjabi and Kashmiri food, home chef Vipula can state the differences between the two cuisines. For example, Rajma prepared in both cuisines is very different. The local kidney beans obviously differ but Punjabi Rajma uses onions and tomatoes while Kashmiri Rajma does not.
Another home chef who whips up some delicious Kashmiri dishes is Jasleen. She was born and brought up in Srinagar and has learnt cooking from her parents. She tells us about the various local ingredients that are often used in Kashmiri food - lotus stem, saffron, kolrabi (also known as gaant gobhi) and haaq or kadam, being some examples. Her version of cooking Tabakhmaaz includes some milk added to the cooking water. The water generally gets absorbed by the meat but she saves some and adds milk to it. She serves this as a delicious broth that gives an introduction to all flavours being used in the cuisine. Also its important to know that Tabakhmaaz is the Kashmiri Muslim preparation of mutton ribs where it is cooked in masalas and then fried off in ghee. The other preparation is that of Kashmiri Pandits where the mutton ribs are first cooked, then dipped in curd and fried.
Kashmiri Pandit cuisine is the lesser known side of Kashmir’s culinary treasures. One thing that stands out about the Kashmiri Pandit food is that garlic and onions are not used in cooking. Instead asafoetida (hing) and ginger powder is used to amp up the flavours of the dishes. Although Kashmiri Pandits are a Brahmin community, they consume a variety of meat dishes.
After speaking to Ankur Nehru, we get a better understanding of the foreign influences on the food. “Persian (Farsi/Samarkhand) traders who travelled through the Silk Route had a great influence and most of their cooking techniques are still put to use. Even rice, something Kashmiris are greatly dependent on, was introduced by the Chinese through the Silk Route.” His mother, Usha is a home chef who prepares Kashmiri Pandit food. She talks about the various vegetarian dishes that are also immensely loved. "Khatte Baingan, Dum Aloo and Chaman Kaliya are just some of the dishes. But what makes them different than Wazwan is that none of these dishes involve any tomatoes or onions."
"In case of fish preparations, we eat only river fish." This is what home chef Renu told us when we asked her about seafood preparations in this cuisine. The fish can be paired with a variety of ingredients such as Navalkol (also known as Gaant Gobhi), Nadru (Lotus Stem) and even Radish!
When it comes to talking about Kashmiri food, how can one not mention their two iconic drinks - Kehwa and Sheer Chai (also known as Noon Chai)? Kehwa is made with the local green tea of Kashmir. The tea is brewed with saffron, cardamom and cinnamon. Nuts such as almonds or walnuts are added to the tea and in Kashmir the drink is enjoyed with freshly baked bread of Kashmir, Girda. Sheer Chai is a rather peculiar drink. It is pink in colour (courtesy of the baking soda added to the drink) and requires an acquired taste for its unique flavour. Kashmiri Pandits call it Sheer Chai while Kashmir Muslims know it as Noon Chai since it is enjoyed during the afternoon.
Talk about Kashmiri desserts and one just stands tall above the rest - Phirni. This rich and smooth dessert is made with rice, milk and saffron and cardamom. Apart from Phirni, another drool-worthy dessert is Modhur Pulav. This rice-based sweet dish is prepared using saffron, cardamom, cinnamon, ghee, sugar and nuts among other aromatic ingredients.
These cuisines define Kashmir in a way. The rich flavours, unique cooking methods and fascinating stories to tie it all together.
How can one not fall in love with this paradise on Earth?