What makes the Kashmiri wazwan the culinary masterpiece that it is? There are several answers. The first one is that it is only in the cool climes of the Valley that you can eat around a kilo of lamb over a dozen courses and actually enjoy it.
Then too, it is fiendishly difficult to replicate a Kashmiri wazwan outside the state, because you have to have a meal cooked by a waza. They are a traditional, hereditary community of male cooks who never ever cook inside their own homes, but set up an outdoor kitchen in the courtyards of their customers and cook on wood fires. Even if you were to expand the definition of a wazwan meal to mean any meal that contains the time-honoured array of dishes, even if they were cooked on a gas stove, you would still have to ask a waza to cook it, and there are, quite simply, no wazas outside Jammu & Kashmir.
The tradition of the wazwan started, funnily enough, because of the need to use all parts of a sheep. Each dish in a wazwan uses only a precise cut of lamb: tabak maz uses only the ribs, the slightly sour qorma is made with the chest of the lamb, mild and milky aab ghosh uses only the tail of the animal and so on. Although it seems too extravagant to be true, taken as a whole, the wazwan is a gourmet way of dealing with left-overs! Not even the organ meats are wasted: they go into one of the most popular dishes of the entire meal – methi maz.
There’s just one snag, however, and that is that the mutton (only sheep’s meat is used; goat meat is not even sold in the Kashmir Valley) has to be fresh. The definition of fresh here, is slaughtered, skinned and apportioned all within one hour. More than that and rigor mortis sets in, which makes the meat tough. In a city like Delhi, buying large quantities of mutton from the central slaughtering unit and driving like a maniac through the traffic to the kitchen at which the wazwan is to be prepared, will take close to three hours at the very least.
The wazwan is all meat, meat and more meat, but never once do you experience boredom. Organ meats are cooked with dried fenugreek leaves, kebabs are minced lamb grilled on skewers, ristas are pounded meat (not mince) that is formed into koftas and simmered in a flavourful red gravy, yakhni makes use of large pieces of lamb in a tangy, yogurt-based gravy flavoured subtly with dried mint, vegetables are introduced by spinach in gravy with tiny pounded koftas, a sweet-sour component is provided by raisins or apricots with lamb. Then there’s the fearsomely spicy mirchwangan korma that has three times the chilli quotient than any other dish on the menu. As a relief from all that lamb, there’s fried paneer in tomato sauce or quince in onion-thickened gravy before the all-important gushtaba that signals the end of the feast.
Every family in Kashmir, especially in the towns, has their family waza. Conversely, every waza has up to fifty families as customers. The wazwan is the single largest expense for a wedding. Not only that, it is the waza who determines the exact date of a wedding: if he is busy with the wedding of one of his other customers, the other wedding will have to be postponed. Fortunately, in an Islamic society, there are no astrologers involved, and consequently no auspicious dates. Nobody has a wedding during the month of Ramzan, and most people do not marry during two months of Saffar and Muharram. On the whole, the wedding season lasts from May to October, all other things being equal. Floods and political tension wreak havoc on the marriage market as it were. When the situation is especially grim, local TV channels have a strip that runs continuously about whose wedding has been postponed to better times.
When the going is good, however – and it usually is – weddings are riotous celebrations with food taking centre-stage. This is how it works: four people of the same gender sit around a large copper platter with a cloche-like lid. The expense for each platter depends on how much lamb is placed on it, anything from 2 kg to 4 kg being the norm. In the summer of 2013, the price of lamb went abruptly from Rs 250 per kilogram to Rs 350, leaving fathers of brides lamenting their bad luck. There were whispered imprecations about the price being fixed to help some groups of people and who knows – perhaps there was a grain of truth in it. However, hardly a father of a bride postponed the wedding day to a time when the price of lamb came down. During the wedding season, the price of every ingredient sky-rockets, including the humble cilantro!
There is a loose template for the menu. You do have to start the meal with at least three items atop the mound of rice that is served to four guests, but your bank balance and your waza’s imagination can create six or more starters. One can get away with rista, roghan josh, yakhni, tomato paneer, gushtaba as the only main courses, but if that is all you are going to serve, do be warned that you will be sneered at privately for years to come. Other hosts, perhaps with deeper pockets, will serve around fifteen main courses plus six starters. Under the radar are the ‘side’ dishes that make the whole spread look generous and taste great, but aren’t really counted. They are walnut chutney, zeresht chutney, pumpkin mousse, pickle, pulao and even curd that used to be individually set in terra cotta pots but is now store bought from the multi-national brigade in plastic jars.
However, if there is one take-away beside the beauty of the bride, it is the lavishness of the wazwan.