Then he washes his face again, and again, and goes back to his meal: a sampler of Wazwan, the cholesterol–infused but delicious feast, a version of which traveled here, some believe, from Western Persia during a winter in late fourteenth century when 600 disciples had carried 21 sacks of condiments and recipes during a long and frozen trek through the high Karakoram passes. (<em>The book of gold Leaves</em> – Mirza Waheed)
The Wazwan (loosely translated as the chefs shop) is a culinary symphony composed of 36 dishes. Featuring preparations of lamb using distinct parts of the animal, ancient recipes and traditional techniques, it includes a smattering of dishes prepared using poultry, dairy & vegetables. It is served on a bed of rice, that’s used to neutralize the palate between courses, which are served in a specific order to aid digestion. Even though one consumes large quantities of meat, the body feels light and active.
Reserved for special occasions, eaten by four people on a copper <em>traami</em> (platter), it’s a celebration of the human spirit and a grand showcase of hospitality, which is intrinsic to Kashmiri culture.
During the summer months, unique climatic conditions allow a bounty of fresh produce in the form of fruits and vegetables, but harsh winters have necessitated the development of a strong culture in sun-dried vegetables, to which, the hatche bazaar, dried foods market, in downtown Srinagar is a fitting tribute. A culture that focuses on cultivation yet celebrates foraged ingredients such as hand, <em>tsochel</em> (leafy greens) and natural coloring agents like the cockscomb flower. Exotic ingredients like morels, saffron and bunching onions (praan) find equal place with humble ingredients like Kashmiri mirch (chilly), Himalayan garlic and cumin. While the Wazwan may be the crowning glory of Kashmiri cuisine, it is the humble haakh (a kind of leafy green) that evokes nostalgia in the Kashmiri diaspora.
Undue credit is given to the influence of the Central Asian invasion, as popular imagination focuses on the cuisine that developed over the last 600 years. However, Kashmir has been at cultural crossroads for over two millennia and it is unfair to ignore the influences of history and its unique impact on the palate of the region. Punjab, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Persia have strongly influenced the cuisine, yet in Kashmir, it came together in a form that was refined, and given a compelling identity of its own.
A simple everyday phenomenon may serve as an indicator of the range of this influence.
The consumption of salted tea is endemic to the Trans-Himalayan region, spanning almost 3,000 km, from Kashmir to Bhutan in the east. A version of this salted tea/pink tea, also known as <em>nun chai,</em> is ubiquitous with Kashmir, where it is uniquely paired with different bread varieties–<em>lavasa, girda, bairkhaani, tcochwoor</em>. These breads are unique to a region spanning almost 3,000 km from Kashmir to Iran in the west. Nowhere else along this 6,000 km stretch are these two distinct culinary elements combined with a sophistication and ritual as encountered in Kashmir, which took elements of two worlds and made it its own.
History aside, Kashmir is a gastronomes fantasy with a permanent invitation to eat, hanging in the air. Every locality has a baker and its common to see people testing the bread between their fingers, in order to discern the ones perfectly baked. (No, it’s not just the prerogative of the French and the Italians). Tree-lined roads bursting with mulberries, course through a landscape speckled with paddy and fruit orchards. Come evening, the scent of bakers is replaced by the distinct aroma of roadside barbecue stalls; selling <em>tujji,</em> skewered meat, served with paper thin <em>lavasa</em> and varieties of sauces & chutneys.
Institutional visits are incomplete without sampling the saffron-tinged, ghee-soaked <em>halwa poori</em> at the dargah or breaking the monotony of waiting at government offices with the humble <em>daal chut–</em>spicy lentil mash in a flour tortilla. Conversations are incomplete without cups of <em>kahwa</em> (a spiced tea flavored with saffron and almond flakes) and social visits are considered rude unless accompanied by a package of the local cakes and cookies. One could say Kashmir is obsessed with food and with feeding.
Contemporary Kashmir has begun embracing modern concepts such as specialty cafes and fast food
restaurants as eating out has become an accepted norm. Today’s youth crave a global cuisine and the pervading spirit of entrepreneurship has ensured that this demand is being met by a mushrooming of pizzerias, restaurants and cafes. Local chefs are beginning to experiment – combining heirloom produce with modern techniques and driving a new wave in bringing forth their cultural legacy, that still remains less explored.
<em>(Mir Junaid is the president of Jammu Kashmir Workers Party (JKWP) with special interest in grassroots governance, gender justice and policy making. He can be found on @MirJunaidJKWP)</em>.