There is a wedding in the family, and all day long the courtyard is the scene of activity. A party of professional male cooks spread themselves out under a colourful canopy. The head cook cuts up a whole sheep with a set of wicked looking knives. Nearby, a log fire is being lighted, and an array of pots set on it. Tiny shallot-like onions are pounded and fried, uninspiring screws of newspapers containing all the commonly used spices of an Indian kitchen are opened, and the contents tossed into the simmering cauldrons almost haphazardly.
The team works with the precision of an army. To each member is assigned a specific role, the least enviable is the pounding of bits of meat with a heavy mallet. The task, tedious and fatiguing as it undoubtedly is, nevertheless forms the pivot on which the head cook or waza’s reputation revolves. For pounded meat goes to make up two of the banquet’s most popular dishes- ristas and gushtabas, and neither of them ought to contain any hint of gristle or else ….
Hours later, when the antiquated kitchen has transformed the commonest ingredients into an eight (or twelve, or twenty for, or thirty six) course banquet fit for a king, guests will be seated on the floor, four to an enormous copper plate. They will sample the genius of the waza and his solemn entourage. Most of the dishes are meat based, but the miracle is that each has its own distinctive flavour and texture. Crispy spare ribs, creamy yakhni, the incendiary mirchwangan korma named after the fiery red chillies that give it its name, all are secret recipes that only a waza can make with any degree of skill.
And skilled they are, because wazas, Kashmir’s community of professional cooks, do nothing else all year round. Their forefathers before them, and their children after them continue this delectable tradition of Kashmir’s cuisine.
The visitor to the Valley who has sampled some of the more popular wazwan dishes, as such banquets are called, wonders if all Kashmiri food is as elaborate. No, indeed! Wazwans are usually held in celebration of wedding, engagements or the birth of a child, and are accepted with alacrity by the invitees. August and September is boom time for the cook and the eating public alike, for being the wedding season, there are several wazwans to attend, sometimes at the rate of one every day for a week!
However, Kashmiri households neither employ wazas for everyday cooking nor do they attempt to compete with them in the matter of culinary skill for the waza stands unsurpassed.
Competing for first place in a Kashmiri’s heart are two items of daily fare: salt tea and rice. Salt tea is drunk at breakfast and for afternoon tea by the majority of households. Tea with milk and sugar—or Lipton chai as it is referred to—is regarded as a western affectation. The leaf for salt tea are the fresh cut-tear-curl variety of Assam origin, boiled with water for at least half an hour. Milk, salt and soda bicarbonate are added and the mixture is further cooked till it acquires a pink cast because of the soda. It is then poured into a copper samovar whose central “chimney” is filled with live coals, and sip is poured out for the head of the family to approve. When this solemn ceremony is done with, the tea is served in shallow pottery bowls without handles. City bred folk douse their tea with pieces of bread, but for the villager, nothing else will do but soth. This is lightly roasted rice or maize coarsely ground and stored in a tin right by the samovar.
Beyond the confines of Kashmir, people from Srinagar will graciously condescend to partaking of Lipton chai, but the peasant will only consent to leave his village when he has all the makings of his beloved salt tea packed.
One of the most familiar sights in the countryside during spring and autumn is that of village women carrying enormous samovars out into the fields. These two seasons are the busiest for the Valley’s farmers, for whom the sight of the tea kettle is a welcome one.
Local baker’s shops have a staggering array of breads of all shapes. There is the flat unleavened lavas to small bun-like varieties sprinkled with sesame seeds or poppy seeds, there are shortbreads sweet and savoury, and triangles of flaky pastry. All these serve as accompaniments to tea, both at breakfast and in the afternoon.
Rice is not merely the staple food in Kashmir: it is the subject of many a proverb, and its presence pervades the land, for rice is the chief crop in the Valley, grown all over the low-lying areas of Kashmir except in pockets like Sopore where apple orchards abound, or in Pampore, noted for its saffron crop.
The Kashmiri word for food is the same as the word for rice, which here does not signify the long grain rice of the basmati variety. The grain so highly prized is dense and somewhat sticky, and is eaten for lunch and dinner alike by prince and pauper. Even to the urban elite, a sandwich lunch is unthinkable!
Meat is important accompaniment to rice in both Muslim and Hindu Pandit households, vegetables playing a secondary role. Mutton, chicken or fish are eaten daily in rich households—poorer families eat it less often, and a vegetarian Kashmiri is a rare breed.
Everyday cooking tends to combine meat and vegetables in the same dish, often in unusual but delicious combinations. Thus mutton can be cooked in a thick gravy with baby turnips, chicken with spinach greens, and fish with lotus root.
Although brown and rainbow trout had been introduced to the Valley’s rivers and streams at the turn of the century by the British, it is not trout that is eaten in the majority of homes, but Kashmir ‘gad’, an unremarkable fish, flat-bodied and weighing a kilo at the most. Sophisticated methods of catching fish are unknown, the fishing community being skilled in the use of nets. Kashmir gad is caught by men, and sold in market-places by women who, with their baskets, line the sides of many bridges in Srinagar’s old city. The visitor to Kashmir is usually struck by the absence of wasteland. After every foot of cultivable land has been put to use, water is pressed into service!
Srinagar’s Dal Lake is a master-piece of good agricultural planning, and the floating and vegetable gardens are now a must on every tourist’s shikara ride.
Floating gardens do just that—float. An ingenious method of layering rich soil and organic fertilizer onto a floating bed of bamboo and twigs ensures that the vegetables that are grown on these ‘gardens’ are always on the surface of the water, no matter what the level of the lake. Moreover, they can be transported from one location to the other. Vegetable gardens are still more ingenious, for they are built up with layers of silt and soil from the bottom of the lake to a foot above the surface. Tomatoes, spinach greens, turnips and all the other vegetables that are grown on the lake, and sold every day at dawn in a unique floating market from one boat to another, are more highly prized that those grown on land.
In the long cold months of winter, vegetables are scarce, and preparations for their preservation are made from the beginning of autumn. Fiery red chillies are threaded together in chains and hung at windows, so too are garlands of apple rings and whole turnips.
However, relief only comes after hardship, and after the rigours of winter, spring appears as a burst of joy.