If there are any ghosts wandering around Srinagar City, they’re probably discomfited by how much the city has changed since they passed on. They probably cannot recognize it as the place in which they lived half a century ago. Not because of the pace of life, to be sure, but because of the skewed ratio between habitation and fields. Today, the city has redrawn itself thanks to urban sprawl, the rise of the nuclear family and exponential wealth.
The fallout has been the rice fields of Kashmir and the agricultural life that was predicated on them. Even until a couple of decades ago, Kashmir was an overwhelming agricultural society. The craftsmen – carpet weavers, hook work embroiderers etc – used to take up handicrafts in the months following autumn when the frenzy of the harvest was over. Winter in Kashmir has always implied snow, so when the land could not be worked, the farmer and his family used to devote their attention to another way of earning a living.
Rice, it has to be said, is more than just the staple food of Kashmir. It finds its way into proverbs; the word for “meal” means rice (just as the word saapadu does, at the opposite end of the country) and even today, the average urban family spends an inordinate amount of time cleaning, sieving, washing and cooking it. There’s more: every phase of the life of the crop as it morphs into food is called by a different name. While it is in the field, it is daani; after it is threshed, it is shaali. When milled and husked it becomes tomul, when you scoop out a cup of it to wash it preparatory to cooking it, it is referred to as vye, and when you cook it, in the last stage of its life it is called baatha. If you want to ask someone if they’ve eaten lunch, you ask them if they have had baatha.
When a wedding is about to take place in a family, there is a printed invitation. But there’s no invitation for another vital pre-nuptial function, and that is the tombul tschattun doah – the day that the rice for the wedding feast will be cleaned. It involves the closest female relatives of the person about to be wed amid much good-natured ribaldry and vast quantities of rice to be winnowed. Wedding invitations themselves have a certain amount of political correctness in them, but you are only summoned to winnow rice before a wedding if you are close to the bride or groom’s family. The bond of rice as it were.
Where there’s rice, there are accompaniments for it and the most iconic is lamb. Not goat meat mind you, but honest to goodness mutton. In spite of rising prices and shrinking paycheques, every card-carrying Kashmiri aims to have mutton as many times in the week as possible. In the old days, when today’s ghosts were flesh and blood humans, money was not the all-pervasive commodity it is now, and mutton was expensive, so cucina povera developed using the offal, trotters, brain, lungs, liver, kidneys, stomach and intestines of a sheep. The whole idea behind cucina povera is to elevate a set of ingredients into a dish fit for a king, and this is perhaps the glory of the Kashmiri cuisine: so delicious are the preparations that even the elite secretly hanker for them, behind heavily tinted SUV windows.
Even wazwan, now touted as a cornucopia of ten days’ meals combined into a single feast, is actually cucina povera elevated to an art form. For, once you have slaughtered a whole sheep, the only way to consume it is to use each part for a particular dish. Meat cookery in Kashmir has reached the heights that say, fish cookery has in Japan. So only the fatty chest is good enough for the sour qorma, only the shoulder for aab ghosht and so on. No self-respecting ghost would like to watch in the wings as a wazwan is served buffet style: there’s just far too much wastage involved.
Bringing up the triumvirate of favoured foods is nun chai. The leaf is ‘green’ rather than black, but it is a very far cry indeed from Chinese and Japanese green teas and even oolong tea. The method of preparation is long and rather laborious – something it has in common with all Kashmiri traditional cooking including the intestines and trotters – and has a little in common with the rather onomatopoeically named gur gur chai of Ladakh.
Today’s ghosts may have to wander in and out of villages to see the once-familiar site of village belles carrying a copper samovar on their heads out to the fields where father, mother, brothers, cousins, and uncles were working through the day, stopping only for the one punctuation in ten hours: tea time. Biscuits and breads have always occupied pride of place in the Islamic world and Kashmir is no exception: the array of both is bewildering to the newcomer; to the Kashmiri, it is the only way he will consume the other grain – wheat!
Dry fruits like almonds and walnuts, fresh fruits like apples and cherries (besides plums, peaches, pears, apricots and mulberries) grow well in Kashmir. The sight of apples in winter and cherries in summer is a familiar one in markets all over North India. A sprinkling of spices grows here too. Shah zeera, a variety of cumin, grows in higher altitudes. The side valley Gurez is famous throughout Kashmir as having the most fragrant black cumin as shah zeera is called in English. South Kashmir has ideal soil conditions for the cultivation of chillies. Here is where the prized Kashmiri chilli originally comes from. Kashmiri chilli having become so well-known, is now highly sought after and the meagre areas where it grows can never hope to fulfil the entire country’s demand for it. So, a few enterprising souls have taken the seeds from Kashmir and grow it elsewhere in the country. All is not gold that glitters, and all is not Kashmiri that goes by that name.
The final spice whose provenance is Kashmir is saffron. Though one tenth of the world’s supply of the spice is grown in Kashmir, miniscule quantities are actually used in Kashmiri food. Saffron embodies the romance of Kashmir like nothing else does. You have only to visit the rolling plateau where saffron grows for three months of the year to sense its whimsical beauty. Because the translucent flowers that glow in the moonlight are mere inches from the earth, harvesting saffron is literally a back-breaking task. But the ghosts know that the inherent value of saffron is because it is the only spice whose provenance is a flower.
Which leaves you wondering about the vegetables. Well, you see, it’s like this. If the Good Lord gives us rice, meat and salt tea, we’ll forgo the veggies. Even the ghosts would agree on that one.