It never fails to amaze me how Kashmiri wazwan has percolated the consciousness of every foodie in the country, yet how few know anything at all about Kashmiri bread. At the most basic level, there are three types of bread that are eaten morning and evening: tchot, lavas and tchachvoru. All are made with wheat flour and water and are densely textured as you would expect anything that comes out of the tandoor to be. Lavas is roughly analogous to a chapatti, albeit with refined flour, but the other two are of bread-like consistency. Because the tchachvoru has a trademark ‘dimple’ on the upper surface, it has been compared to the Jewish bagel. But you don’t dip ready to bake tchachvorus into boiling water as you do bagels.
In my Srinagar summer home, all three types of bread form an integral part of not only breakfast but afternoon tea as well. Each of the hundreds of bakers across the city makes tchot and lavas for breakfast and tchachvoru at tea-time. All khandani bakers bear the family name Sofi, and have a tandoor on the ground floor of their residence cum bakery. Customers and bakers share a symbiotic relationship in this still traditional society: you can change your car, even the style of your kitchen, but you are unlikely to change your baker.
Tchot and tchachvoru are given a milk wash before being slapped into the tandoor so that they attain a pleasant brown colour, but what I like best about tchachvoru is the nutty flavour of the sesame seeds that top it. Tchot, on the other hand, has a few khus-khus seeds as a topping, which barely adds anything to the flavour, and lavas has no topping at all. Each of these three breads come in single-serve portions, and all cost under Rs 2 each, though barely a decade ago, their cost was an even more modest 50 paisa. Just as you wouldn’t wait for two days before eating a chapatti that has been lying around, you wouldn’t touch any of these breads the day after they have been made.
Several notches higher than tchot on the gastronomy scale is ghee tchot, which includes a smidgeon of ghee in the dough for a richer taste. It used to be the khandani baker who would make the other of Kashmir’s tea-time treats: kulchas and baqarkhanis, but another kind of baker has joined the fray: the pastry maker.
The pastry maker doesn’t have to have inherited talent for pastry – he can hire workers to turn out an array of products. Baqarkhanis, unlike their Lucknavi counterparts, are flaky pastry, usually as large as pastries, except that they’re savoury. Kulchas are unlikely to win you any brownie points with your cardiologist: they are soft and buttery with the plentiful addition of ghee, and are topped with a thick crust of khus-khus. In bygone times, traditional bakers would use much less ghee and make the kulcha in their tandoor, for a longer-lasting but crisper bite but this is rare today. Then there are sheermal, rounds of pheni with their thread-like strands and roath, the imperceptibly sweetened bread that is baked in a foot-long tray.
Toula biscuits are short-crust pastry. Like the rest of the array in a bakery shop, these too came from the British and remained unchanged, unlike the savouries that Kashmiris promptly adopted and tweaked to their own taste.
Caption: Our family baker, Mennah Bakery, Safa Kadal, is a rarity: he has a tandoor as well as an oven.