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Kashmiri deep-fry to Delhi sauté

The Kauls, who owe their culinary heritage to Srinagar, are proud of their secular cuisine, writes Paramita Ghosh.

india Updated: May 30, 2008 22:51 IST
Paramita Ghosh

When it’s summer, what is a boy to do? In the Kashmir of the 80s, there were still plenty of options, says lawyer Neeraj Kaul. The family would leave the plains and go up to their house, Pratap Villa, which had been home to some of the officials that ran their state.

Pratap Villa was by the river Jhelum. And even that last summer, in a house where cross-border firing was being openly spoken about in rooms full of children, they rode horses, pitched tents in the orchards, had scones and tarts for tea, and sat under the magnolia tree looking at the mountains.

Call it political naivete if you will, but they had no clue how the situation would turn, says Neeraj. “We had great equations with our neighbours. Some of my father’s best friends were non-Pandits. Our staff was Muslim and as children, we played with them. Violence was alien to Kashmir, so father took it rather badly,” he says.

Neeraj’s grandfather, Upendra Kishen Kaul, who had set up the first matchstick factory in India, hurt like it was the second Partition. The wave of Pandit migration may have begun in the late 80s, but for the Kauls who had bought property in Delhi earlier, leaving Kashmir was always about not being able to return. “It was a paradise lost to us,” he says. “When we went back in 2005, for the first time in his life, father stayed in a hotel.”

Pratap Villa, looked after by their caretaker, is now cleaned out. A doll-house, the Villa’s replica, a somewhat unusual gift for a boy (given by an indulgent mother to Neeraj’s father), became in later years an important tie to his past. It now stands at one corner of the Kaul’s dinner table.

Neeraj’s wife, Vatsala, whose inheritance of loss is through association (“I feel a disconnect, it’s external to me, I’m not part of this,” she says), is a Pandit from Uttar Pradesh. Neeraj’s grandfather, Raja Upendra Kishen, she says, is an important figure for the family. Eggs, non-kosher for many Kashmiris, one learns, were supplied to him by palace intrigues. “He liked eggs and it was forbidden. So the women of the house would smuggle them in and pass off the expense as medicine,” she says with a chuckle. “So whenever ‘medicines’ appeared on the household list, we knew some khansamah or the other, in some part of the house, was breaking a yolk over a pan.”

The Kauls travelled with their cooks. The Muslim cooks cooked them the gushtabas and ristas.

Fifty-year-old Ram Charan, still serves them their meals. No, there’s not even a whiff of controversy or even a hint of a friendly tussle between the cooks from ‘there’ (retainers in Srinagar) and ‘here’ (those from the plains like him). But his selection of memories is revealing: “They use a lot of salt there,” Ram Charan slips in gravely. His other grouses, however, extend to the dilution of his art.

“For one kg of meat, he used to pour in 250 gm ghee/oil. Earlier everything was fried, now he has to sauté. I keep on hearing what used to be the norm during the time of Rani Sahiba,” says Vatsala who shares with mother-in-law Anuradha a lineage from the plains. “Pandits from the valley say vangun for baigan, posh for phul, aar for purple plums and vangunaar for bigger plums. But we all have a great variety of vegetarian food,” says Vatsala.

During lunch, arhar dal — lentils are another item off-menu for Pandits of the valley — is tempered with jaggery and cumin, adds mother-in-law Anuradha Kaul. “It’s the UP strain of the family making its presence felt,” she points out.

The children — eldest daughter Niharika is 14, twins Dushyant and Sagarika are 10 — are, “total Delhiites”, says Vatsala. Dushyant, however, whose idea of Kashmir, not surprisingly, is drawn from memories of lack, makes clear where he stands: “I like goliyas and koftas. I do not like gushtabas and ristas.” The point of this rejection, is, I think, less about food and more about cancelling the other half of his culture. But, for the moment, he is too young to understand it quite that way.