I have a blind spot, as everyone who knows me will readily attest: I love the homeland of my husband: Kashmir and am completely unable to separate the strands of what is Muslim and what is Pandit. To me, they are interwoven with the silken fibres of a cobweb. You have to view the cobweb and its delicate design in its entirety to get the picture. Try and tear off a few strands and the whole thing disintegrates. Unfortunate, but that’s the way it is.
So, the Pandits of Kashmir are unique within India in their practice of Shaivism. They abstain from garlic, onions and tomatoes, and on religious days, there are a few vegetables that are not allowed to them, like peas, beans and even spinach. However, haakh, the collard greens that are such an integral part of Kashmiri cuisine, is kosher. And while chicken was traditionally considered unclean, mutton and fish are perfectly legitimate, much to the surprise of their co-religionists elsewhere in the country. Pandit customs and culture marched alongside that of their neighbours, the Muslims, overlapping at times, mostly because of geography: the greens that grew so plentifully in the Valley were available to both: mallow, dandelion, knapweed, sorrel, purslane, rhubarb (sochal, handh, kreatsch, obuj, nuner, pumbe haakh) and because rice has always been the staple, both cuisines have developed with gravied dishes being the mainstay: dry preparations are rather rare. Then too, mustard oil is the favoured medium of cooking for the entire population.
Divisions tend to be subtle; one community favours the use of brass for tableware and steel for cookware; the other delights in copperware. One community uses garlic as a flavouring agent, the other asafoetida. On the other hand, all Kashmiris must eat rice, mutton and a handful of vegetables that grow in the Valley. They must have the whiff of mustard oil and Kashmiri chillies: more colour and fragrance than pungence. No meal can be prepared without aromatic spices, of which black cardamom is the defining one, with fennel and turmeric common to all. There are infinitesimal differences in the language of the two communities, but, as a Kashmiri friend once remarked, it takes a Kashmiri to understand a Kashmiri; the community is immaterial.
In both traditions, it is the home kitchen that is the centre of the universe, and in traditional families of each community, ritual purity is a pre-requisite to enter the kitchen, so akin is it to a sacred spot! It is a natural corollary, therefore, that the lady of the house is the single most important person that carries the cuisine forward: a waza or commercial cook is just that, in spite of the most delicious food that he produces for banquets. It is my constant lament that there are not enough Kashmiri women who cook food for small groups commercially, so what Rajni Jinsi is doing is praiseworthy indeed. A housewife who grew up in Anantnag and then Srinagar, she was married in the 1980s and as her husband worked in Kolkata, she left the Valley. Fortunately for her, Rajni’s mother in law was as accomplished a cook as her mother, and so her oeuvre grew.
Their home is now Faridabad where Rajni takes very modest cooking orders for neighbours, more as a means to give fuller rein to her passion than for anything else. None of her customers are Kashmiri, yet none require her to alter any of her recipes. Her first foray into full-fledged commercial cooking has been because of a fortuitous meeting with a family member and the F & B Director of Holiday Inn, Mayur Vihar. The F & B Director literally rang the bell of his neighbour, a Kashmiri (who happened to be a close relative of the Jinsis), to ask whether he knew of a good Kashmiri caterer, and the rest is history.
So, with every hotel in the NCR vying to hold Kashmiri food festivals in the latter part of winter, what exactly is the defining experience? One current trend is to make the venue look like a market in the Valley, complete with ingredients (honey, spice cakes, saffron) for sale. Some hotels even tie up with handicraft dealers for the sale of trinkets and objets d’art made from paper mache and walnut wood. Other hotels bring in a slew of wazas – the community of cooks who prepare the Muslim banquet. The Pandit banquet has a different spread of dishes with a few overlaps, cooked by a community who are, curiously enough, not called wazas, nor indeed anything at all! It is only the initiative of the Holiday Inn, Mayur Vihar that has uncovered the real repository of Kashmiri cooking: the home.
Rajni Jinsi’s menu includes dishes that no commercial cook would dream of doing, so stuck are they in their Matsch, Kaliya, Roghan Josh routine. The rajma with turnip, the brinjal made sour with tamarind pulp, the delicate paneer in an intensely flavourful gravy made red with chillies or the kohlrabi cooked in a light gravy, golden with turmeric – all these never make their way beyond the family dining table. And that is why this particular festival is going to be a game changer.
Mrs. Rajni Jinsi can be contacted on: 9899008238. She cooks every dish herself, with no household help. The food has to be picked up from her residence in Faridabad, Sector 46