Walk around in the Old City of Srinagar and if you are lucky, you might hear the strains of wanvun – a rhythmic tune sung by a group of women. Listen closely. You just may hear the rhythmic thwack of wood hitting meat. It’s a sure sign that there’s a wedding being held in the neighbourhood and that preparations for a wazwan are going on.
But there’s the question that has never been answered successfully: from where has the wazwan originated. One theory has it that it came from Iran at around the time of Budshah but there are a couple of things wrong with that. The first is that nowhere in Iran is there a concept even remotely like wazwan. Secondly, even Iranian dishes like aabghosht are not even made of the same ingredients as the similarly named dish in Kashmir. About the only similarity I personally can find is the qorma of Kashmir and the albaloo and meat of the Iranians: both use sour plums to great effect. Then you can probably co-relate ghormeh sabzi with haakh with mutton, though it is something of a long shot.
The other theory has it that the wazwan came from Central Asia, as did the samovar. Fair enough, but where is the banquet in Central Asia, and where is even a glimmer of the genius of the spicing of the dishes in that cuisine? Also, the sheer breadth of accompaniments to just one ingredient: mutton, to make it irresistible from first course to last: milk, yoghurt, chillies, dried plums, fried onions, chunk meat, pounded meat, large joints, small pieces is an art form in itself and has no parallel, however remote in the rather rudimentary cuisine of parts of Central Asia, where hand-made noodles and pelmeni: the momo-like dumplings co-exist with simple grilled kebabs.
Yet another theory postulates that waaz waan refers to a barber’s shop. In explanation, proponents say that at one time in the distant past, it was the barber who played match-maker in Kashmiri society. Over time, he wanted to integrate backward by supplying cooked food for the wedding that he helped organize in the first place. I find it too bizarre for words because in the traditional society of Kashmir, wazas are from a completely different community from barbers and while the former are prominent, the latter are far from it!
My own feeling is that the wazwan probably originated in the Valley at some distant point in time. It was probably meant exclusively for the aristocratic class, and one of the objectives almost certainly was to make efficient use of an entire carcass. Even today, when families discuss their dinner menu, mutton is bought according to the dish that has been decided. Conversely, if a householder goes to the family butcher and asks for fatty pieces of meat from the chest, the butcher is almost certain to ask whether it is for yakhni, and if so, whether guests are expected. Few Kashmiris would make qorma with any other part of the animal than the chest, cut into small pieces: the fat is said to be cut with the sour dried plums. This kind of justification of certain cuts of meat for particular dishes is in our blood. My feeling is that it is because of the tradition of the wazwan. Also, even if the provenance of individual dishes in the wazwan is from Iran, the entire production is undoubtedly Kashmiri.
My husband Hafeez points out that Bulbul Lankar, a prominent neighbourhood of the Old City, was where a preacher from Central Asia, Bulbul Shah used to preach every day till his death in 1327. Lankar is probably a corruption of the word langar which means open kitchen for the large-scale distribution of free food. It is not improbable that the holy man, who is still revered in the Valley, used to operate an open kitchen for all who came to hear him preach. Within walking distance is the neighbourhood of Wazapora, where a large percentage of wazas live. It is likely that wazas used to help in cooking the langar. After all, even today, wazas are only busy for a couple of months in the year, during the wedding season. They have lean months too, and they very likely helped to cook meals for large numbers of people, however simple those meals were. As no meal in Kashmir is complete without mutton, it is probable that one or more sheep was slaughtered to feed several people.
So, did the wazwan as we know it today have its origins on the banks of the River Jhelum six hundred years ago? It could well be. The population at that time was overwhelmingly Hindu, and so, the two strands – wazwan of the Muslim community and wazwoor of the Hindus bifurcated at some point in time, to be religion-compliant. Whatever the origin, in the absence of any proof to the contrary, we must assume that the genius is entirely indigenous. Historically, too little credit has been given to the Kashmiri art for conceiving of and cooking a masterpiece of a banquet that not only leaves no waste but elevates organ meats to an exalted status, and with the most crude implements – the stone and the wooden mallet, logs of wood on a cemented courtyard, commonly used spices thrown haphazardly in screws of paper – a feast is created that has few parallels in the culinary world.