Hospitality in the valley is invariably linked with food, and is therefore and integral part of experiencing Kashmir. Like the people, the food is rich, varied, and sometimes, overwhelming.
The welcoming cuppa
For at least nine months, it is very cold in Srinagar. This makes hot tea and saffron kahwah staples. To accompany which, there are biscuits and bread.
From the sole baker making only what in Kashmir they call lavash - bread, which is made of maida and looks like a chapati - to full-fledged bakeries that have at least 40 varieties of biscuits and 10 of bread, bakeries are thus, abundant.
The saffron kahwah, brewed in samovars are a must-try. Though it is included under the category of tea, it really does not contain any.
It is brewed with saffron, cardamom, nutmeg, sugar and some other optional spices. Too much kahwah isn't ad visable, as they say excess saffron can give you a headache. <b1>
So stick to the usual masala tea, which still tastes different as the milk is very thick. People skip breakfast and lunch, sustain themselves only on tea and snacks, but indulge in a heavy dinner. No wonder diabetes is on the rise amongst Kashmiris.
Then there is something called namkeen chai, which contains eating soda and is known to induce nausea in first-timers. No one will ever let you taste it unless you absolutely insist. This will have to be an exceptionally large number of times, as insistence is taken to have an entirely new level in Kashmir. Like when you are being served food.
My guest, my lord
Most homes do not have tables; food is laid out on the floor on a spread called dashtarkhawn. Even in restaurants, tables are at an awkward height, somewhere around your torso. You will be made to sit on one side with a plate and at least seven dishes will be placed in front of you.
The hosts will sit opposite you and put one serving of everything on your plate. Then, they will sit and watch you enjoy the food - as much as you can with someone looking at you. I asked them to join me but no one would. This, even after I said that letting someone eat alone is rather rude.
But eat you will, since the food is hard to resist. The first question I was asked in Kashmiri homes was not what my name is but whether I was a non-vegetarian or not. And I always got an approving smile when I said I was. <b2>
This is not to say that vegetarians have any problem in Kashmir. The paneer is of excellent quality, as are the fresh vegetables of the Dal Lake. The lotus stem, nadru, is must-try as is paneer made in saag.
Rice is the staple food; red meat is more popular than chicken or fish (mainly trout from the Jhelum) among the locals. Barbecued food is called tuji; the lamb is soaked overnight in vinegar and spices are then cooked on skewers. Skip the fancy restaurant and go to one of those local places where the plate is so full with dressings and pickles that you have to eat off the skewers.
Can't say no
Other special dishes include ristas (small meatballs made by beating the meat on a stone with a wooden hammer to get a fine texture), gushtaba (a large meatball cooked in thick gravy), and yakhni (speciality meat cooked in curd).
The food is always in excess, both in quantity and variety. I was told that social activists want to ban the Kashmiri vaazwaan or special feast (now served only on occasions like marriages and birthdays) for the wastage it involves. Young boys and girls do not even sit around the huge plates, called taramis, they eat from.
They said I would not be able to ‘sit' a vaazwaan. Three skewers of tuji, four lavashes, and one bread pudding later, they were forced to change their minds.
(According to reliable sources, Insiya, the anchor for HT Cars & Bikes is the first person to have fallen into a nearly-frozen Dal Lake in 30 years).