Mughlai food (the real McCoy that is, not the upstart version you get in restaurants) started its decline because of the richness of its ingredients and the intricacy of the preparations. Bengali widows’ food is on its way out because society is becoming less and less traditional. Many of India’s micro-cuisines are in danger of fading into oblivion because they are too tedious, all the old cooks have passed on, and because everyone’s eating lighter anyway, but a section of Kashmir’s cuisine is going the way of the dodo because a road has now become all-weather.
Howzzat? And what does a road have to do with a cuisine? In the old days, when winters in Kashmir used to be severe and three meters of snow used to be the norm in Srinagar, the population would be forced to cook dried vegetables. Some vegetables lent themselves beautifully to drying: bottle gourd, turnip, tomatoes, mushrooms, spinach, fenugreek leaves and aubergines are the most often dried ones. In those days, absolutely no vegetable would grow in Kashmir after late autumn except occasionally haakh, the spinach green that is the staple vegetable of the Valley. Just to be on the safe side, however, some families even dried haakh.
It sounds as if dried vegetables was a diet of deprivation, but Kashmiris have a way with food: give them a sheep and they’ll give you a 20-course wazwan, so cooked dried vegetables (hokh syun in Kashmiri) morphed into a feast for a king. In any case, Italian sun-dried tomatoes are sold in the rest of the world at a hefty premium precisely because drying out the water content of the vegetable increases the intensity of the flavour and does interesting things to the texture as well.
In the seventeen and a half years that I have been married (my husband is from the Valley and my in-laws live there around the year), winters have been becoming progressively less severe to the extent that quite often there’s no snow at all in Srinagar. That in turn means that National Highway 1A, that leads from Srinagar to Jammu and is the route for all supplies to reach the Valley, is easier to maintain. When the road is blocked for four days every five years due to snowfall, it means a bit of inconvenience for the people of Kashmir but it hardly calls for the level of self-sufficiency that was the norm until 30 years ago.
About five years ago, shops in the city started selling dried vegetables and I knew that the writing was on the wall. In a situation where accountability as a concept doesn’t enter the picture, anyone can sell anything and call it dried vegetables.
Today, even in our family of dried vegetable junkies, hardly a kilogram or two of turnips are dried. And in the autumn, my mother in law now never excitedly comments on the rows of hundreds of aubergines drying in the vicinity, because nobody bothers any more.