What does a meeting of political bigwigs, an office picnic and an Eid celebration have in common? If all three are held in Kashmir, the answer is wazwan, the traditional banquet.
In conservative societies such as Kashmir’s, all occupations are hereditary. Carpenters’ sons pick up the hammer and saw, barbers’ sons will wield the scissors when they grow up, and cooks — wazas as they are known in Kashmiri — have fathers who were in their time cooks too.
Wazas play a key role in Kashmiri society for no celebration of any kind is complete without a banquet and no wazwan can be made without a team of wazas.
Not only do all wazas have a standard repertoire of dishes, even their modus operandi does not differ much. The only variable is the cooking skills of each. There’s a hierarchy among them, the best known will hire a series of helpers, starting from close relatives. A small family-only wazwan to serve eight requires not more than two wazas; a grand affair for seven hundred calls for something like twenty. All wazwans have a preponderance of mutton dishes: even the simplest eight course meal calling for at least six mutton dishes. Because wazwans itself implies a celebratory banquet, less than eight dishes is unheard of, between ten and twelve is pretty average; fifteen plus, and you are talking big time. The maximum is thirty-six dishes, which include an assortment of chutneys and at least two vegetable dishes.
To cater for this awesome spread, each member of the waza’s team works with the efficiency of an army. Given the importance of meat, the crucial task of carving the mutton goes to the head waza. At the other end of the scale, the junior most helper will do the chores like pounding dried red chilies with a dash of water. This thick paste will be used just like a household uses red chilly powder.
When a family plans a wazwan, the first step is to contact their family waza. The client-waza relationship is an intensely sacred, lifelong one. A waza may have a client list of several hundred, but each of his clients will use him alone. Thus for a family celebration, it’s vital to ensure that the family waza is free. If he’s not, of course, the date will have to be changed. Naturally the question of changing the waza does not arise.
Together the host family and the waza chalk out the menu. The budget, the occasion and the guest list are the three deciding factors. In a society where lavishness is equated with giving respect, a waza knows that when his client insists on upholding his guests’ honour, he is in effect saying “I’m pulling out all the stops.” That is music to the waza‘s ears, because his changes are per quintal of meat cooked.
Wazwans are indispensable to weddings. The night before the wedding (the henna ceremony), the wedding day itself, the engagement and a typically Kashmiri tradition where male members of the bride’s family present a suitcase filled with clothes to the groom, each call for a wazwan of varying grandeur, the most important of these being the wazwan given by the bride’s family for the groom and his male relatives.
Wazas cook in the courtyard of host’s house or, if space is at a premium, in the courtyard of a neighbor. While they use their own huge copper vessels, all ingredients and firewood belong to the host. The weeks between chalking out the menu and actually preparing the food are busy ones for the host’s family. Ingredients must be bought and prepared for the waza. Red chillies must be bought and de-seeded en masse; garlic, onions and shallots must all be peeled. Red cockscomb has to be picked over and spices have to be filled in huge storage tins. The quantities of each ingredient required by the waza are bewildering —ten kilos of pure clarified butter, 15 kilos of mustard, half a kilo each cardamoms, cinnamon and cloves. It must be said, however, that wazas excel at cooking for hundreds of guests. Also, every family in Kashmir knows that the expense it incurs for the wazwan is the single largest one during wedding. The success of any wedding and the consequent prestige it bestows on the host’s family depends to a large extent on the excellence of the banquet. All other considerations pale into the background so that however outrageous they may seem, nobody grudges the waza’s shopping list.
The most expensive ingredient by far is mutton.The consumption of this is counted per guest. Half a kilo of mutton is the minimum, 1.25 being the maximum. Usually sheep weighing 15 kg are slaughtered for the wazwan. To indiscriminately use sheep of different sizes, weights and ages is to ask for trouble, because one piece of mutton in a dish may be overcooked while another may be underdone. For that reason, only male animals are used — female sheep have a different proportion of fat to lean meat. Every part of the sheep is used for wazwans, except for the head and trotters. Both these are too ‘homely’ fora banquet. Liver and kidneys are likewise too homely to actually be served to guests, but are made into a delicious stew with curly kale, the popular type of spinach that grows locally. This is served to the host’s family for the meal preceding the wazwan.
No Kashmiri family would dream of serving entrails to a guest even for a home cooked meal, the only exception being methi maz, a superb blend of entrails cooked with fenugreek leaves. It is the invention of a genius, because the strong flavour of fenugreek combines masterfully with the milder taste of the stomach and intestines. Even those who find the idea distasteful end up enjoying methi maz.
Why is the wazwan so popular in Kashmir and outside it? There ‘s nothing to compare with the sheer range of flavours and textures that are coaxed out of a single ingredient — meat. Not a single part of the sheep is wasted: every dish makes use of that part of the animal which suits it best. This can plainly be seen even as the average householder goes shopping for the daily quota of mutton. While elsewhere in the country a shopper is quite likely to ask for half a kilo of mutton, in Kashmir he’ll ask for half a kilo of meat from the breast, shoulder or tail, depending on the dish that is being cooked at home that day.
This concept is seen at its best in the wazwan where only leg of lamb is used for dhaniphol, only ribs for tabak maz, only neck for rogan josh and so on. During the course of a wazwan, amid a veritable storm of courses, not one dish tastes like another. Tabak maz is crisp, cottage cheese is tart with tomatoes, rogan josh is rich and red, qorma is ever so lightly sour with dried apricots, shoulder of lamb and tail are used for a creamy dish cooked in milk, and yakhni uses curd as the base for the sauce.
There doesn’t seem to be any form of garnishing of dishes, perhaps because of the way that they are served. Traditionally, four persons sit on the floor around a huge round plate made of tinned copper. On the platter is a mound of rice on which the dry ingredients are arranged: half a roast chicken, a couple of jebabs, methi maz and tabak maz. These are somewhat akin to starters. A troupe of wazas inch their way along the banquet hall spooning out ladles full of meat and gravy into each platter. There is a strict order for doing this: rista, the first gravy dish to make its appearance, is a meat ball of pounded lamb that is silky in texture. After the whole range of dishes comes the gushtaba, a giant meatball made of the same pounded meat, cooked in a curd based gravy. This is the signal that the banquet is over. A semolina pudding sometimes follows.
With at least two types of chutneys and relishes and a kilo of meat it seems an almost gargantuan task to finish a wazwan. It is an almost superhuman feat, but one made perfect by practice. For one, everyone knows they’re going to overeat and come prepared accordingly: nobody eats a heavy breakfast that day! For another, ladies are allowed by custom to carry away the meat in plastic bags brought along for the occasion. So accepted is this rather unsophisticated practice, that hosts often distribute plastic bags to the female invitees.
It is because the wazwan is so deeply entrenched in the Kashmiri tradition that it is in no danger of dying out. And its flexibility makes for providing greater reach: visitors to Srinagar can sample a few of the most popular dishes at restaurants, visiting dignitaries are treated to wazwan buffets, office picnics to Pahalgam carry a busload of colleagues with a waza or two in tow. Ingredients and cooking vessels accompany them.
So popular is the wazwan, that at least one waza has moved more or less permanently to New Delhi where he caters to private parties as well as supplies to a slew of restaurants. But is it healthy cooking? Well, that’s another story.