In the winters of 2019, I visited Kashmir – the mesmerizing snowclad land of lakes, mountains, passes, Shikaras and rosy-cheeked people. It was my first visit to the valley as a tourist. I started my journey from Srinagar, drove up to Leh on the SH- 44 Srinagar Bandipora road along the beautiful Jhelum river.
Coming from Southern India, I was excited to see the locals wrapped in warm woolen gowns called “Pheran” and holding a small earthen pot filled with ember called a “Kangri”, inside layers of warm clothes. As I drove down the beautiful town in the early hours of the day, I could sense the aroma of diverse spices which permeated the freezing air. As I drove on, the aroma got stronger and I saw few people crowded near a small house. When I inquired as to what was going on, it happened to be a “Dastarkhaana” which is generally a traditional space with a cloth laid on the floor on which the food is served.
As a traveler and food lover, it was dream come true. Kashmiris are one of the most heartwarming people. That day when I sat there with the locals and tasted Kashmiri food prepared with such love and care…
Having heard multiple stories about the Kashmiri Cuisine and Wazwaan, I decided to halt and experience this famed cuisine. I entered the small gateway which led to a large hallway with beautiful artwork from the 1990’s era. As I walked by, spellbound by the place, I was warmly greeted by a mid-aged man named Ahmed Rather who led me to a comfortable and cozy corner with a clear view of the kitchen. Looking around the place as the food was getting served, I was wondering as to what to order. Just then, Ahmed came to my rescue and softly inquired, “Janaab, me aapki kaise madat kar sakta hoon? You don’t look like a native, where do you come from?”
“Hyderabad in Telangana” I replied. As I couldn’t control my curiosity, I asked him about how the food in Kashmir is different from the ones we get in other parts of the country?
Ahmed told me that Kashmir’s cuisine is unique in terms of spices – in particular fennel, asafoetida, cardamom and Kashmiri red chilies – and the flavors. Most of the vegetables and grains are produced locally in the valley and surrounding areas. Also, as there is a scarcity of food during harsh winters, women of the family dry the vegetables months before the winters and preserve fruits for the season ahead, which adds a blended taste to the food. Peeking through the kitchen and astonished by such interesting details, increased my appreciation for the array of dishes being served. Also, I asked Ahmed to suggest me some dish and order it for me.
In a while, Ahmed first came and served me some drink in a steaming hot cup which to me looked like a type of tea. To my surprise I was right. Ahmed told me that it was the native drink called “kahwa” which is tea leaf infused in boiling water with saffron, cinnamon, cardamom and Kashmiri rose petals. Sipping it, I could feel the taste of each and every ingredient separately and it just gave me the right warmth that I needed in the freezing weather.
Next, he got me a series of Wazwaan dishes, which I had never heard or seen off. Wazwaan includes a spread of over 30 courses, mostly meat dishes cooked all night long by a team of chefs called ‘Wazas’ under the supervision of a ‘Vastawaza’ or master/ head chef, descendants of the cooks from Samarkand. It includes the valley’s most exalted foods like rista (meatballs in an oily red Kashmir chilly gravy), lahabikabab (mutton kababs cooked in yogurt), wazakokur (halved chicken, deep fried and cooked in saffron gravy), daeniphoul (mutton shank), doudharas (mutton cooked in sweet milk) and rogan josh (mutton cooked in spices till the oil floats on top). The food is permeated by thick sauces utilizing liberal amounts of yogurt, flavors and dried organic products, and is generally cooked in ghee or mustard oil.
As the wazas began preparations, people gathered in large numbers around a Tramis (a large platter) with the plate full of steaming rice while the dishes are being served around it. As I was standing alongside Ahmed in the queue, I was super excited to get the first taste of Wazwaan. Ahmed also mentioned that the Wazas, form a significant political group in the valley and have a strong influence as well. Finally, as the food was served to us, for a moment I felt, “for a meat lover like me, this is like reaching the promised land.’’ Sitting on the divan right in the middle of the hall, we started chatting while eating. Being almost of similar age group, we bonded along quite well. Ahmed shared with me that each meal signified a celebration of life in itself and that the 30-course meal was an important means of keeping a sense of community intact and of sharing rich traditions, flavors and beautiful memories.
Finally, about an hour to reach my last bite, I told Ahmed how much I loved the wazwan prepared in a typical Kashmiri kitchen, having it with a Kashmiri friend and in the state capital. No doubt it was a feast!. As a traveler and food lover, it was dream come true. Kashmiris are one of the most heartwarming people. That day when I sat there with the locals and tasted Kashmiri food prepared with such love and care, I realized the passion and happiness that they bring into their food. I was happy that I could experience this myself.
I suddenly realized that its time for me to leave as I had a long ride scheduled for the day. Before I left, we exchanged phone numbers & made a promise to catch up every year once at each other’s hometown alternatively. I also promised to serve him with the world-famous “Hyderabadi Biryani” during his visit to my hometown. Never had I realized that our culinary culture could play such a pivotal role in showcasing a perfect mixture of tradition, culture and more importantly love. This Unity in Diversity will and always be the strength of our country.
While I was bidding Ahmed goodbye, he asked me, “How’s the josh?”
To which I replied, “Rogan josh” and we both burst in laughter.