Who qualifies for the tag of a genuine Kashmiri? Noted Kashmiri intellectual Aga Ashraf Ali once laid out the criteria. A Kashmiri is the one who can shuffle a kangri (a fire pot filled with charcoal ambers) under a 10-kg quilt with his feet even in semi-sleep. Another criterion requires the person to cut into four pieces with bare hands a scalding hot goshtaba, a half-a-pound ball of mutton that marks the end of multi-course wazwaan.
The less hazardous way is to ask a Kashmiri how many different types of breads are made in the Valley. If he says more than twenty and none of them resemble the roti, you not only have a fullblooded Kashmiri, you also have a case fit for sedition.
In one of the longest-running traditions of bakery, largely untouched by modernity, every day, long before the dawn, tens of hundreds of baker families in the Valley fire up wood tandoors to bake choat, the flatbread with thick edges and furrowed surface, or lavaas, a lighter variation of pita bread. Both are taken with salted tea in the morning. Salted tea and choat or lavaas combination is still the only breakfast the poor can afford.
For the second round of salted tea in the afternoon, Kashmiris consume chochwor, a bagel-like bread generously daubed with sesame seeds and given a glazy look by rubbing it with sheep fat.
This diurnal tradition makes bakers the most visited traders any given day and these bakeries the most underrated and understudied businesses.
Every morning and afternoon, a family member takes to a smoke-filled bakery (every mohalla has at least two) a wicker basket exclusively set aside for the purpose. Using long iron rods, a baker plucks the bread from the tandoor and drops it directly into your basket, therefore rendering meaningful the phrase ‘ovenfresh’.
Bakeries, like any barbershop, therefore are the ideal gossiping joints. This makes them the first points of contact for parents looking for an ideal match for their kids. The bakeries are the most visited for another reason too — the women take care of the sales and the women invariably are good looking and a notch fairer than the rest, like the women of the milkmen community.
The bread basket
What are these varied types of bread? There are three to four variations of choat, three to four varieties of puffed bakerkhwani, a sheermaal, a krip (hardly made nowadays), girda (a cross between choat and chochwor) that we were used to consuming during Ramazan, and nearly a dozen species of sweet, salty or bland kulchas (don’t even imagine they resemble the one taken with chhole).
Breads are integral to some customs. For every good occasion — engagements, weddings, births — a roat (sweetbread) was specially ordered. Cakes have replaced the roat now. The maternal grandparents of a newborn are supposed to send specially baked choat to his paternal grandparents. A large bakerkhwani or choat, containing generous quantities of ghee or animal fat, are served as accompaniments to rogan josh at engagement ceremonies. Halwa sandwiched between two choats is distributed at sufi shrines on Urs, or after recovery from a long spell of illness, or passing an examination, or at a community gathering held on the first Friday after a person’s death.
Ever since their last sovereign king Yusuf Shah Chak was called for a meeting by Mughals only to be thrown into exile (hence the raging struggle for political rights), the long history of Kashmiri suffering gets reflected in various legends, one of which has grown around the most diminutive of breads, chochwor.
The older generation likes to dunk the chochwor in a cup of salted tea that has been brewed for hours with a generous pinch of sodium bicarbonate. The chemical might extract the soul of tea leaves and healthy antioxidants, but it also leaves the brew unwholesome in the process, doctors say now. The overall effect was that in the process of soaking up the pink beverage, chochwor swells up sizeably, giving the poor Kashmiri a feeling that he had a filling afternoon meal. But the realisation gradually dawned upon the masses that the humble faux meal was far from fulfilling.
In fact, it was the direct result of the centuries of foreign rule, the Dogra colonial reign being the most exploitative of all. Thus a chochwor bathed in tea is a constant reminder of the abject poverty inflicted by a ruthless colonial rule. Outlandish reading of historical circumstances? Probably. But any explanation goes when you are in the midst of an unending political conflict.
I have always wondered why family names of most of the bakers is Sofi. I haven’t come across a convincing historical reference. But I proffer one of my own. I think it has to do something with being a Sufi. Waking up before dawn every day for years together to work for hours in front of a blazing hot tandoor in a smokefilled room, and occasionally burning your hands in the process, definitely needs the patience of a mystic.
Baking is a family business. While one member (males exclusively) makes the dough, another (female, usually) shapes it into balls, another rolls it and the one in charge of tandoor places the breads in neat rows on the walls of tandoor with bare hands.
In Srinagar, scores of bakeries close down every year. Reason? It is hard work. Also, after finishing their education, children of bakers move on to other professions, giving rise to migration of bakers from rural areas to fill up the gap.
Though this unique tradition of baking is in decline, Kashmiris will continue to have tandoor fresh bread for a pretty long time to come because many of them have not got over the fact that the slices of English bread were fed only to the hospitalised sick not so long ago.