Harissa: The one-dish winter wonder
In the winter months, a dish is cooked in Srinagar that signifies both life and ritual in the entire valley of Kashmir. A few dozen Harissa shops, mainly in old Srinagar, the downtown area, begin a routine that lasts till March.
In a huge earthen pot, a rice gruel is prepared, preferably with the short-grained, sticky Kashmiri rice. Into this go whole sheep legs (though goat meat makes the best Harissa), fennel seeds, cinnamon, green and black cardamom, cloves, crispy fried Kashmiri shallots and salt. Around an hour-and-a-half into the cooking, the narrow-necked earthen pot is closed with a lid. This is when Harissa-makers steal a few hours of sleep.
Around 4 am (the cooking begins around 10-11pm) they wake up. With a metallic ‘hand’ fitted to a long handle, the bones, from which the meat has fallen off, are removed. Into this meaty slush is poured smoking mustard oil; the mixture is mashed with the help of a long wooden masher until there is a blend of fat, protein and carbohydrates with the consistency of a baingan bharta.
With my first plate of Harissa every winter, I am reminded of my friend, Rafiq, a fine tailor with a voracious appetite. He is the only person I know to have eaten a kilogram of Harissa at one go. “Is there a customer who has matched or bettered Rafiq’s feat?” I ask Muhammad Shafi Bhat – the caste of most Harissa makers is Bhat, a service caste – a master Harissa-maker in the Fateh Kadal area of downtown Srinagar.
Though Rafiq is a regular at another shop nearby, he’s a bit of an urban legend, so everyone knows of him. But he has been bested this winter. There is apparently now a consumer of 2.25 kg of Harissa!
“Who is he?” Bhat’s other customers, who have begun to crowd around his pot, are keen to know.
“Naming him will turn him into a stone,” the Harissa-maker says, alluding to the popular belief that an evil eye could freeze a person into stone. We agree that Allah should keep him in good health.
What is special about the Kashmiri Harissa and what makes it a fit candidate for an episode of the American eating-challenge show, Man vs Food? The Kashmiri Harissa is a delicious mash similar to the Armenian and the West Asian Harees, the Persian Dizi and the Hyderabadi Haleem – in all of them, mutton or chicken are slow cooked with rice, barley, wheat or lentils and spices. But while these dishes use ghee for tempering, Harissa uses mustard oil, which it infuses with the ‘sweet spices’ of green cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and whole fennel seeds.
THE HARISSA CHALLENGE
A plate of Harissa in the Valley is served with a mutton kebab and cooked overnight. The dish is scooped up with choat, a flatbread. If you can get a plateful by 10 am in one of the old city shops, you will be lucky. By that time, they are usually scraping off the crust at the bottom of the pot. The crust, called phuher, is a favourite with children. Once the pot is cleaned, preparations begin for the next morning. Harissa-making is a round-the-clock job.
“Why do you think Harissa shops are not opening everywhere? It is back breaking. We have persisted in this trade because our previous generations not only handed us the craft but patience too,” says Bhat, whose son Umar is by now an accomplished Harissa maker. Their shop, Sultani Harissa in Fateh Kadal, is more than a century old.
A generation ago, many Harissa makers would employ workers from Gurez. They are known for their muscle power, a quality most needed for mashing the Harissa. Muhammad Munawar Wani, in his seventies, remembers coming to Srinagar half-a-century ago from Gurez and working at the most popular Harissa shop, the Bhat Harissa shop at Aali Kadal. He helps the Bhats take and pack the orders as well.
“Harissa was ₹2 per kg in the ’60s. It is ₹800 per kg now. But it’s still made the same way,” says Munawar.
Aijaz Bhat, another popular Harissa maker in the Jamalata area in Srinagar, is not happy about Harissa stories in the press because publicity means more customers and they can’t cater to the rush. “It doesn’t feel good that people wake up early to drive to our shop and return empty- handed,” he says. “We can’t increase production simply by hiring more assistants. Unless we do all of it ourselves, I don’t feel it’s the real thing,” adds Aijaz, who sells about 60-70 kg of Harissa every morning.
Visiting a Harissa shop in winter is an experience unique to Old Srinagar, sustained in large part by the egalitarian culture of the densely populated mohallas. People who have moved out of the old city into the mushrooming housing colonies in the suburbs often leave utensils at Harissa shops a day before and collect them the next morning. Harissa is one of the many things the families of betrothed couples exchange during the engagement.
Poet Zarif A Zarif links the Harissa’s arrival in Kashmir to the region’s transition to Islam from Hinduism, when Central Asian, Arabic and Turkish influences in arts, language and culture transformed Kashmiri culture. Zarif says Kashmir’s tradition of slow cooking is tied to what works best to provide nutrition and warmth during Kashmir’s long winters. Many of these culinary traditions can be traced to Kashmir’s Hindu and Buddhist influences, adds Zarif.
He ranks the shops at Aali Kadal, Saraf Kadal, Fateh Kadal and Sarai Bala as the best in the city. Some eateries like the Dilshad restaurant at Lal Chowk serve Harissa throughout the day. Restaurants make it in pressure cookers, like most people at home nowadays. This doesn’t bother the Old City Harissa makers, because, as they say, the connoisseurs know the difference.
Ingredients (serves 6-7)
1 kg lamb/sheep leg with bone
1 cup rice
¼ cup fennel seeds
12 green cardamoms
1 big stick cinnamon
250 ml mustard oil, smoked till the raw smell is gone
Salt to taste
Fried shallots (white onion will also do)
Ask the butcher to cut the lamb leg into chunks and make cuts into them up to the bone. Place the mutton in a deep pressure cooker. Wash the rice and add to the meat. Rice should ideally stay above the meat. Add the rest of the ingredients except shallots/onions and mustard oil. Close the lid and cook it on high heat for the first whistle. Lower the heat to the lowest and cook for 30-40 minutes. Turn off the gas; check whether the meat has fallen off the bones. If not, cook on low heat for some more time, adding warm water if needed. Remove the bones. With the help of a masher/big wooden spatula, mash the ingredients. Pour oil in small quantities. At this stage, add the fried shallots/onions. You can add milk also but that is optional. Once it becomes smooth, ladle onto a plate, spread and add a tempering of mustard oil. Garnish with fried shallots. You can have it with Afghani naan or crisp and thick tandoori roti.
—The author is a senior journalist in Srinagar