By Rhea Kumar:
“Rogan Josh is derived from the Kashmiri words Rogan, meaning colour and Josh, meaning spice,” the steward at my hotel tells me as I scoop a hearty amount of bright red mutton curry onto my plate, already laden with saffron flavoured Kashmiri pulao, embellished with almonds, cashews and raisins. With a breathtaking view of the snow-capped Himalayas silhouetted against the evening twilight, I sit down to eat authentic Kashmiri wazwan in Srinagar.
Wazwan, the traditional Kashmiri feast consisting of 36 delectable dishes, owes its origins to Timur’s invasion of India back in the fifteenth century and the inflow of about 1700 craftsmen, weavers, architects and cooks into the Kashmir valley. The descendants of these cooks, the wazas, are the master chefs of Kashmir and produce the mouth watering dishes that form the basis of Kashmiri Muslim cuisine today. Wazwan is regarded as a specialized art in Kashmir. The 36 dishes are cooked by the head chef, Vasta Waza and his retinue of wazas. The meal is served in groups of four and eaten out of a large plate called trami. What was once a name for an elaborate feast at weddings and other functions is now used to refer to Kashmiri cuisine in general.
So what are these wonderful delicacies that are a hallmark of Kashmiri cuisine? The spicy Rogan Josh, made from the key Kashmiri ingredients of mutton (or lamb) and saffron, is the most popular of them all. Meals usually start with seekh kebabs (skewered meat), kanti (deep-fried meat, similar to North Indian pakoras) and tabak maaz (fried rib cuts). This is followed by the rich main course consisting of dishes such as zafrani murg ( chicken cooked in saffron gravy), marchwangan korma (fish curry), aabgosht (lamb cooked in milk), roganjosh, and yakhni (meat in a sour curd based curry). The meal usually ends with gushtaba, comprising juicy meat balls in a sour cream based curry. Phirni, similar to kheer, is the standard Kashmiri dessert. The meals are usually served with curd, chutney and various flatbreads such as kulcha, bakirkhani and krep and are, all in all, an epicure’s delight.
Meat such as mutton and lamb are commonly used in all traditional dishes and curries, with chicken and fish also being used occasionally. Saffron or kesar, is the native spice and is used to colour most Kashmiri dishes a deep shade of crimson. Aniseed, ginger, asafetida, fenugreek, chillies are ground into a secret masala called Ver which gives Kashmiri food its strong, sensual flavour. A generous helping of dry fruits in each of these dishes adds to the richness of the dish. Kashmiri food is truly meant for the royal palate!
Many of the wazwan dishes owe their presence to the Kashmiri pandits of this area. Dishes such as roganjosh, yakhni and aabgosht have been present in Kashmir even before the arrival of the Muslims. The food of Kashmiri pandits is usually cooked without onion and garlic and is often curd-based. Though they are heavy meat eaters themselves, the Kashmiri pandits have also contributed to a large number of vegetarian dishes that form a part of wazwan today. These include nadru yakhni and nadru hak (lotus stem in curd and spinach respectively), guhchi (a spicy curry of mushroom and peas), razmah goagji (kidney beans in a spicy red sauce) and the famous dum aloo (potato balls in red sauce). While Kashmiri cuisine is truly a non-vegetarian’s delight, there is enough on offer to ensure that even vegetarians take back memories of delectable and authentic Kashmiri cuisine.
Finally, there is traditional Kashmiri chai to keep one warm in the biting cold. There are two types of tea: noon chai, which is a salty pinkish coloured tea, and the more popular kahwa, sweet green tea infused with saffron and cinnamon and garnished with almonds and cashews. Kahwa is my personal favourite; the delicate flavouring of green tea embellished with saffron and dry fruits produce a potion like none other. It is said to have huge health benefits as well and is very effective for the biting cold in these parts. Although I bought a `ready-mix’ for kahwa from the market in Pahalgam, I sincerely doubt whether the preparation will match the freshly made tea at the small stalls and eateries found all over the state.
In a state known for its religious conflict, it is surprising and even heartening to see how Kashmiri cuisine draws from the traditions of Hindus and Muslims, Indians and Pakistanis. From its origins in the savoury dishes of the Kashmiri pandits to the formalization of the Kashmiri feast, or wazwan under the Kashmiri Muslims, to the introduction of flatbreads from West and Central Asia, Kashmiri cuisine is a syncretic mix resulting from the interactions between these two communities. And a third influence is slowly creeping in, that of the West. The average youngster on the road in Srinagar can be seen making huge bubbles out of bubblegum. And the owner of a small, bustling and popular eatery at Sonmarg lures customers to his outlet with shouts of ‘chai, kahwa, bread pakora and Maggi’!