I got introduced to Kashmiri Wazwan a.k.a the Kashmiri royal feast through a very interesting gentleman, whom I had met in Srinagar. Mr. Mohiuddin Ahmed Shawl loved food, Kashmir, and talking. One cold early winter evening over kahwa (the Kashmiri saffron tea) and sinfully creamy pastries, he spoke yarns and patiently introduced the traditional multi-course local cuisine to me. Kashmiri wazwan is considered an art and Vasta Wazas or head chefs of Wazwan are highly respected in the Kashmiri culture. In fact, this culinary art is not taught but handed down through generations from father to son.
An Afghan storyteller and my Kashmiri wazwan guide
Mr. Shawl owned an impressively widespread handicrafts business and was the perfect Kashmiri host. Polite, engaging and talkative he was a thorough gentleman too, a feature which most Kashmiri men own. He belonged to an old Kashmiri family, is very well known and respected in Srinagar. He has strong Afghan roots and his great grandfather, who was very popular in Afghanistan still lies buried there, in Ghoragani. A shawl merchant by profession, his great grandfather used to be one of the Silk Route traders and he died in Afghanistan. The Afghans buried him there with full honours and later contacted his family back in Kashmir to send his belongings. It is said that he had earned so much of money that Mr. Shawl’s grandfather had to hire several porters to haul all the bags of silver coins from the Srinagar Anz Grindlays Bank (where the Afghans sent the earnings) to his home. Mr. Shawl thus comfortably placed in life had enough time and warmth in his heart to be the epitome of hospitality and he definitely loved introducing his guests to the joys of Kashmiri wazwan.
Restaurant hopping in Srinagar in search of Kashmiri wazwan
Anyway that evening Mr. Shawl spoke so passionately about Kashmiri wazwan that being a foodie, I rushed home to hound my localhost to help me find the most popular local Kashmiri restaurant. He took me to the Mughal Darbar restaurant at Lal Chowk where I gorged on mini Wazwan till I nearly burst. That Kashmiri wazwan meal only whetted my appetite and the next day, he took me to the Peerzoo restaurant by the placid Jhelum river, where the surrounding was nicer than the food. My best experience of this amazing cuisine, however, happened by chance at a rural Kashmiri wedding and I had gatecrashed it on my way to Yousmarg. The authentic formal banquet i.e is the real Kashmiri Wazwan is only served at weddings and that was truly a feast is fit for an emperor.
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Gatecrashing a Kashmiri wedding for the real thing
Almost all the dishes of Wazwan are meat-based (lamb, chicken) and the wedding feast was so rich that I could hardly move by the end of it. Needless to say, I also ate a lot and being safely tucked away with other women guests, I had no inhibition on being a glutton or the need of any propriety to eat less. It was during the wedding feast/walima that they served Kashmiri Wazwan and the men and women were served segregated in separate tents. After all the men were done with their eating, the women and children were served by troops of hefty male relatives bearing huge pots of steaming aromatic food. The guests sat grouped in 4 to share the traditional meal and I shared mine with a bunch of gregarious teenagers.
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Presenting the Kashmiri wazwan at walima or the wedding feast
The Kashmiri wazwan started with the ritual of hand washing in a richly engraved vessel called Tash-t-naer after which bowls of salads and unleavened bread were handed out. The salad was the popular (my favourite) dhun cheti (sharp, creamy walnut and radish chutney) and pickled onions. Exactly in the same moment, plastic bags were handed out to everyone and me, presuming them to be mini trash bags for disposing off extras, kept mine neatly tucked under my plate. The main courses took several minutes before arriving and until then there was a hushed anticipated silence in the tent. The expectation of a grand feast of Kashmiri wazwan made everyone impatient and mine was almost reaching the bursting point.
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The food just keeps coming
The silence was broken all of a sudden by slurrying hands, clattering of ladles, and excited squeals. The busy whirring of plastic bags filled the air as our huge communal meal plate got plonked in front of us. It was a massive, deep basin heaped with steamed rice, methi maaz (intestine slivers cooked in fenugreek), rack of tabak maaz (deep fried baby ribs, braised in yogurt), fried half chicken, and charcoal roasted sheesh (minced lamb) kebabs. To my shock, all the sedate Kashmiri ladies got into an intense divide, partition, and stuff into the plastic bag competition so fast, that the servers had to scamper with the following courses of Kashmiri wazwan to keep up with them.
The desserts of the Kashmiri wazwan were as sumptuous as the main dishes
There was an insane amount of food, which got tucked away into the plastic bags and it was then that I realized their purpose. More food followed with redolent Roganjosh (lamb cooked in red paprika and fennel gravy), Hindi roganjosh (chicken cooked with curd), Rista (meatball in fiery red gravy), Goshtaba (meatballs cooked in velvety white yogurt gravy), Ruwangan Chaman (cottage cheese cooked in creamy tomato based gravy) and Aab Gosht (lamb cooked in fennel,cardamom and milk) being hauled in steaming brass tureens. The relentless feasting concluded with the sour watery Yakhni (yogurt curry helpful for digestion) thoughtfully served at the fag end followed by the dessert, Phirin (thick, creamy milk pudding). Although my first authentic Kashmiri wazwan experience ended with only 34 dishes, at most weddings they go up to 60 sumptuous carbs loaded extravaganzas.
Kashmiri wazwan after effects
While gluttony is a sin I indulge in without any guilt, the Kashmiri wazwan at the walima was beyond my wildest gastronomical dreams. Generally, I hate to step into gyms or practice any kind of disciplined exercise form, but after every J&K trip, I strictly follow exercise and spartan diet rules. Because after every Kashmir trip a kind friend of mine thoughtfully dedicates the following lines to me –
Am I just a tub of lard and
Do you think that when I die I’ll
Need a piano crate
To act as a coffin for my frame? –
Chosen as I die in shame, with
Only I to take the blame
Tempted for more? Stay tuned for the upcoming Kashmiri wazwan guide
I always forgive my friend for his rude dedication for, in Kashmir, I always have a whale of a time. Has my post on Kashmiri wedding feast tempted you enough? Then stay tuned for the mouth-watering guide on Kashmiri wazwan which is coming up next. It’s guaranteed to make you drool.
Featured Image Credit – Iram Mehraj/Shutterstock
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