Is there a conspiracy against everyday Kashmiri cooking? It would certainly seem so — all that is known about Kashmiri food in general outside the state is a handful of dishes that are prepared for banquets, ristas and gushtabas among them.
All Kashmiris, be they Muslim or Pandit, love their meat, and mutton appears daily on the menu, usually in combination with a vegetable. What the vegetable is, is largely a matter of personal preference rather than a state-wide norm. Thus in my in-laws house, spinach, potatoes, tomatoes, kohlrabi or cauliflower are the preferred vegetables.
The neighbours profess a fondness for cooking aubergine with meat, which admission has earned them the sobriquet of ‘the kind of people who eat aubergine with meat’. Sadly, most of our other neighbours too are possessed of eccentric tastes in the matter of food. One favours quince cooked with yoghurt, another cooks meat with carrots or cabbage. Let it be said, we do not approve of their choices and certainly do not subscribe to them.
Yet another professes that she never ever dries vegetables for use during the long and severe winter months. “Just imagine,” wonders my mother in law. “She says there’s no need because the Banihal tunnel remains open almost all through winter and Kashmir today is just as approachable as any other place. If you ask me, she’s just lazy. But her laziness will cost her dearly: everyone knows that only dried vegetables are heating enough to eat in winter. Fresh ones are far too cooling.”
My in-laws, of course, start drying every vegetable they can lay their hands on from October onwards. At any given time during autumn there are sheets spread out in the attic, with fenugreek leaves, mushrooms, turnips and tomatoes. With the onset of winter, a handful of any one vegetable will be cooked with mutton or boiled eggs peeled and fried. And needless to say, nobody catches cold.
Food follows ayurvedic principles closely. Tomatoes are cooling — and therefore apt to give one a cold. They must be cooked with a clove. Turnips are so heating that all heating spices must be used minimally if at all. Most heating of all is the spice cake that every housewife makes in autumn, to last through the year. Pounded red chillies, garlic and the shallot-like pran all are mixed with spices, formed into cakes, dried carefully in the shade and stored. A bit is broken off and popped into the cooking pot to transform the taste of boring old potatoes or peas. Fried with oil and eaten as a chutney with plain boiled rice, this is guaranteed to cure the most stubborn cold. Each housewife’s ingredients for ver is a secret, therefore no standard recipe exists.
But standard recipes exist for just about everything else, the method of Kashmiri cooking being so … standard. Inexplicably, slow braising is unknown. Meat goes into a pot with water, spices (red chilly, turmeric and fennel powder), whole spices are tossed in or withheld according to whether the vegetable is cooling or not. The whole lot is simmered together, an onion is fried till crisp, crushed and added to the stew right at the end.
Visit any restaurant in the country and you’ll be met with Kashmiri naan or Kashiniri pulao. What is on offer is a naan sprinkled liberally with dry fruits or pulao with pieces of fresh fruit in it. It isn’t known who first spread the canard that that Kashmiris actually eat this stuff. One thing is certain however, no Kashmiri worth his haq would touch the stuff. While the hot-sour combination is popular. the sour-sweet combination is anathema to the Kashmiri palate. As the makers and sellers of churan sweets know to their cost.
Considering that a meal without mutton is not considered sufficiently tasty or nutritious, it is surprising that the practice of drying meat to last through the winter does not exist. Dried fish and smoked fish, however, come into their own after December. Not only are they substitutes for meat, they are acceptably heating to the system.
Kashmiris of both communities know their mutton in a way which even other meat-eating communities can never even hope to understand. Each piece of lamb cries out for a different treatment. What else can you do with spare ribs but to fry them crackling crisp?
Breast of mutton with its generous quantities of fat is cooked with milk or yoghurt while brisket, cut across the grain is used for the subtly sour qorma. Nobody would dream of contravening these laws. Or if they do, I hope they don’t tell my in-laws. They’d be sued for sacrilege.