Wazwan and then some: Kunal Vijayakar on Kashmiri food
There are several places in Srinagar which serve a decent Wazwan, but try finding good Kashmiri Pandit food.Updated: Oct 05, 2019 16:33 IST
You ask, “What’s the Josh?” I say “Rogan Josh”.
I have been to Kashmir several times, but the first was in 1970. We were too young to even realise that there was any sort of strife in the valley. Kashmir was this snow-clad land of plenty, with lakes, chinars, shikaras, house boats and rosy-cheeked people. The folks were all wrapped in warm woollen gowns called pherans and they all tucked away a “kangri” (an ember filled, earthen pot, encased in a small wicker basket with a handle) inside the layers of clothes to keep themselves toasty.
In Srinagar, the Dal Lake shimmered in the early morning sunlight as we’d wake up and huddle on the intricately carved wooden balcony of a houseboat, drinking steaming cups of kahwa (green tea infused in boiling water, with saffron, cinnamon, cardamom and Kashmiri rose petals), as ducks and drakes would float by looking for a peck. It was a land of apples and walnuts and slopes, which were ideal for skiing or singing a Shammi Kapoor song.
We’d go back nearly every other year, visiting Pahalgam, which had carved wood houses, deep valleys, and clear water rivers. Gulmarg, nearly 4,000 metres above sea level, had knee deep snow throughout the year. Sonmarg was inaccessible in winter, otherwise called, Jannat. But then the ’90s happened and we never went back.
In early 2000, I did return to Srinagar and drove up to the border on the Baramulla Srinagar Bandipura Road, along the Jhelum River, all the way up to Gurez. When I returned to Srinagar after a couple of days, famished after having driven all night, I hit pay dirt. As my driver drove me into Srinagar’s Aali Kadal area of the old town area, a small queue had already started to form in the early hours of the morning outside what looked like a small house. It was foggy and freezing and the air was filled with the aromas of spices and cooking meat. This is where Ijaz Ahmed Bhat cooks what his forefathers have been cooking every morning for the last 150 years. Harrisa, or mutton kheema, slow cooked until it turns soft and pasty. The meat, along with a concentration of rice and spices, has been cooking for hours in a hole in the ground. It is served with a splash of flaming hot oil and Kashmiri rotis. For a meat lover this is like reaching the Promised Land. The meat is smoky and just melts in the mouth, and on its way around your palate leaves behind hints of saffron, garlic and saunf, with a piece of hot, finger indented, girda and noon chai (salt tea). It’s a breakfast you come alive with.
Much has been said about the Kashmiri wazwan, which is a thaal full of meat. Cooked by a specialist cook called a Waza, this is an array of 36 dishes, including the valley’s most exalted foods like rista (meatballs in an oily red Kashmir chilly gravy), lahabi kabab (mutton kababs cooked in yogurt), waza kokur (halved chicken, deep fried and cooked in saffron gravy), daeni phoul (mutton shank), doudha ras (mutton cooked in sweet milk) and rogan josh (mutton cooked in spices till the oil floats on top). There are several places in Srinagar which serve a decent Wazwan, but try finding good Kashmiri Pandit food. That proves quite a task.
I was lucky to eat at the home of a friend, Uday Kaul and taste his mother’s cooking. It was a simple meal in a simple house, one of the few remaining in the older parts of Srinagar. Sitting on a divan right in the middle of Uday’s mother’s kitchen, we chatted while she cooked and spoke at the same time. The Kashmiri Pandits, like the Gaud Saraswats, are one of the few Brahmins who eat meat. The food is cooked without onion and garlic; these condiments are replaced by asafoetida to compensate. Paneer and curd also form a major part of their cooking.
They say that the Pandits introduced the use of yoghurt, asafoetida and turmeric powder to Indian cuisine. If so, the meal was full of it. Like veth chaman. Chaman, meaning paneer in Kashmiri, is cooked in curd and with spices like saunth (dry ginger) and saunf (fennel). Or chaman qalian (a creamy paneer dish flavoured with cardamom and fennel), nadru yakhni (lotus stem in yogurt sauce), nadru palak (in spinach) and chok wagun (brinjal cooked in sour and spicy gravy with tamarind). And the piece de resistance: dum aloo. Nothing like the dum aloo you get in a restaurant in Mumbai. This is a dark red preparation, with whole baby double-fried potatoes. They’re deep fried and then cooked in oil with dry ginger powder, aniseed powder, asafoetida and Kashmiri red chilli powder until the scarlet oil permeates the potatoes.
We ate that whole meal sitting on the divan in the kitchen, the bright sunlight streaming in through the curtains on a chilly winter afternoon. After that meal, I spread myself across the mattress and stretched out to sleep. I lay there feeling satisfied, content and at peace. I hope the Kashmir too can someday soon descend into satisfaction, contentment and peace.
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