It may be 40 degrees plus in Delhi, but as I write this in Srinagar, I’m shivering in the cold of a spring evening. I am on the extensive lawns of the Lalit Grand Palace, arguably one of the most picturesque spots in the Valley. I am talking to the wazas (cooks) of the late Lalit Suri, who have donned the mantle of corporate Kashmiri cooks of the Lalit group of hotels. No matter what it appears to be from the outside, all wazwans are not equal; neither are all wazas equally gifted. At the risk of being excommunicated from the Reshi clan, I must say that Ghulam Rasool and his brother Fayaz Ahmed are streets ahead of our own family waza. But let me begin at the beginning.
Anyone in Kashmir who has ever had a wedding or celebration in their family, which is to say, virtually every family, needs to have their own waza. Essentially freelance caterers who have their own set of copper cooking vessels and a loosely held team of assistants, wazas are the male members of a community of cooks who are responsible for Kashmir’s well-known wazwan. Each waza – and there are around 200 of them – has a couple of hundred customers. If that sounds excessive, remember, that not all of them will require a waza’s services every year. Engagements, weddings, successful completion of the Hajj pilgrimage, corporate conferences, office picnics – there can be many reasons to have a wazwan.
You do hear of marriages breaking, but seldom in Kashmir does one hear of a waza and his customer parting ways! In fact, when the bride and groom’s family are in talks about the date of the wedding, the first person to be contacted is the family waza. Ghulam Rasool doesn’t know how the wazwan came to Kashmir, but it certainly is the most efficient way of using up an entire sheep. The shanks go to make <I>dhani phol<I>, organ meats combine in the inspired <I>methi maaz<I>, shoulder is used in <I>aab ghosht<I> and so on.
Much like a thali meal or the Japanese kaiseki, you cannot omit certain dishes in a wazwan just because you feel like it, though you can add to the minimum number of dishes: Ghulam Rasool claims to make lamb with raisins and lamb with almond paste, two things I have neither tasted nor heard of in my eighteen years married to a Kashmiri.
In this day and age of health consciousness, the wazwan may have to shape up or ship out. Already, in the last few years, Ghulam Rasool’s customers have been exhorting him to use less oil and chillies, though as he says with a conspiratorial look, it is a tight rope walk to balance individual requirements with a reputation for cooking tasty food. Economic progress in Kashmir has meant that wazwans are now held at the drop of a hat. The only trouble is that each one has no more than two vegetarian dishes.
One identifiably Iranian ingredient in a wazwan is zeresht, a red, sour berry that Iranians use in pulao and Kashmiris use in chutney. Available in Iranian stores in Mumbai and oriental grocers in London, New York and wherever there is an Iranian community, you can simply substitute them for raisins.
100 grams zeresht
15 grams raisins
20 grams walnuts
A half inch stick of cinnamon
A pinch of black pepper
Half a cup of warm water in which 25 grams of tamarind has been soaked
Salt to taste
Wash the zeresht in several changes of warm water until all traces of grit have been removed. Soak for 15 minutes in warm water till they are soft and pliable. In a stone mortar and pestle or food processor, add all ingredients and pulse until well blended, using the tamarind water to give the desired consistency to the chutney.