Think Kashmiri spices and you will automatically be reminded of saffron, that most expensive spice that grows nowhere else in India except the Valley. However, on my annual pilgrimage – or would it be more (politically) correct to call it Hajj? – I came across facts that I had never suspected before For instance, in the Jammu province between Batote and Chainani, there are hillsides covered with groves of pomegranate that go into the making of anardana.
I have never thought about the provenance of any spice that lies on my kitchen shelves. Neither, I suspect, have the majority of householders. That the spices they use produce the desired result is all they concern themselves with. And so, I have been happy, these last few decades, to use anardana, never realizing – or caring – that it probably came from my in-law’s doorstep, figuratively speaking.
Then, there’s something called Kashmiri zeera. As unlike common or garden cumin as you can get, it is also referred to as kala zeera or shahi zeera. Unfortunately, it does not appear to keep very well, and so, every time I have tried to buy it outside the Valley, I have been shown some musty-smelling substance in a dusty jar at the back of some spice seller’s shop. Known to grow wild in Gurez, a reportedly beautiful side valley of Kashmir, it also grows in – hold your breath! – the Srinagar airport, where Airport Authority employees happily collect it from the sides of the runways and sell it in town.
In Ladakh province, where absolutely no spice grows or is used in the traditional cuisine, the only exception is the zeera-like aniseed, which like saunf (fennel) comes from a plant of the umbelliferae family. Aniseed, called kornyot in the local language, also grows wild, reportedly on the margins of farmlands. Aniseed is used sparingly indeed in Ladakhi cuisine, and of course, the question of seeing it in other parts of the state does not even arise.
On the same note, ask any housewife in the Kashmir Valley about anardana and you’ll be met with blank stares, though it is used occasionally by wazas to make a chutney and by a few intrepid souls to add a hint of sourness to koftas. At least you’d think they would be able to identify Kashmiri chillies, but even this is not the case. It sounds scary that locally grown spices are being edged out of existence, but this is precisely what is happening.
I have been buying packets of a spice that is billed as Kashmiri Mirch for decades now. The company – one of the largest in India – informs me that they actually source their chillies from Bedgi in Karnataka. True Kashmiri chillies are being mowed out of the way, but the fact is that they are fragrant, mild and have far less seeds than the national average (which by the way is 60 seeds per chilli).
And Pampore is not only famous for saffron, but also for chillies which are ultra red and leach their colour easily.
Caption: If you find yourself in the Valley, ask for chillies from Noor Bagh (inside Srinagar) or from Pampore at the spice market in the Old City