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Chefs cook Kashmiri wedding cuisine

The season of marriages has arrived before the end of summer and chefs are sweating to live up to their reputation of preparing the wazwan, the Valley's elaborate wedding cuisine.

india Updated: Aug 11, 2009 17:37 IST
F. Ahmed

The heat saps energy, but there is work to be done. The season of marriages has arrived before the end of summer and chefs are sweating to live up to their reputation of preparing the wazwan, the elaborate Kashmiri wedding cuisine.

Wearing white uniforms, Kashmiri chefs, called wazas, prepare wazwan in copper cauldrons, bubbling and spewing steam over traditional wood fires. The unusual summer heat, which has touched the 35 degrees Celsius mark in Kashmir Valley, is making their job doubly difficult.

In the predominantly Muslim Kashmir Valley, the marriage season this year has started earlier because of the month of fasting, Ramadan, beginning Aug 21. Traditional Muslim marriages do not take place during Ramadan.

"Many marriages in the valley are being held before the holy month of Ramadan," said Gulam Nabi, 49, the president of the Kashmiri wazas' association.

And to prepare the elaborate feast in the sweltering heat is tiring, the master chef said.

Wiping sweat from his forehead, Siraj-ud-Din, 34, another chef, said: "You can imagine working for 9 to 10 hours around the scorching fire with dozens of copper utensils spread over the huge fireplace."

In the past, marriages in the valley were held in late autumn after the harvest season. The soothing autumn temperatures ensured not only that the food did not go stale, but also suited the wazas who have to work long hours.

"In the past, the farmers would sell their produce of grain and fruit to put together the money needed for marriage expenses," said Habibullah, 62, a retired teacher.

The wazwan is an extended lamb preparation of many dishes -- anywhere between seven and 50. There's some chicken too. But most dishes are made from lamb cooked with spices, dry fruits, seeped in milk, sweets, sours and so on. You name it and the wazas will be there to cook and serve. But gushtaba, a mutton delicacy cooked with yogurt, is considered the ultimate test of a waza's skills.

There is often so much food at Kashmiri weddings that much of it goes waste -- a concern that has time and again triggered government and civil society-initiated guest and dish control movements. But Kashmiris consider weddings a centrepiece of their culture and all these movements have failed.

The dishes are prepared from high quality lamb. Dozens of spices are blended and used in different quantities to give a unique aroma to each dish. The red Kashmiri chilli that is relatively less hot is the soul of some of the dishes.

"Each dish has to be cooked with the right amount of heat from the firewood which is also of a special quality," said Gulam Nabi, the master chef.

Ask him why wazwan cannot be prepared over gas stoves, Ghulam Nabi laughs and says: "How can that ever happen? The wazwan and the firewood go hand in hand. I cannot imagine risking my reputation by experimenting with the LPG cooking ranges.

"The firewood has been used to cook the wazwan by my forefathers and I shall continue using it," he said.

At marriage parties, guests gather around a white-sheet spread on the floor and a round copper plate, 'trami', is shared by four people to savour the delicacies.

The chefs serve the dishes one by one and move from one plate to another till the last dish, the gushtaba, is served.

"Marriages are made in heaven, but the sweat and expertise of the chefs make them a memorable event for the guests on earth," said a guest at a wedding while savouring the wazwan.