I took a few days to recover from the orgiastic feasting of Kashmiri Wazwan at a walima or wedding feast at Charar-e-Sharif. A friend invited me for lunch at his house over one weekend and I fearfully attended expecting another deluge of rich food. However, the regular Kashmiri cuisine turned out to be delightfully simple and flavourful. His mother prepared Saag meat, a seasonal Kashmiri specialty and it was awesome. Hakh Saag is pungent greens, a specialty of Kashmir and is a popular household staple. She also introduced me to the intricacies of the regular Kashmiri cuisine and though much lighter on the stomach, the natural ingredients used in Kashmiri kitchens are culinary luxury jewels.
Introducing gucchi, the expensive Himalayan morel mushrooms
I stumbled upon the awesome “gucchi” or morel mushrooms in her kitchen when she proudly showed off her prized pick from the market. Freshly foraged and sold in rough-hewn bags full, gucchi is sold by peasants who peddle them in street corners or highways, especially around Jammu. Dark brown and honeycomb topped mushrooms, gucchi are handpicked by Kashmiri peasants, who are blissfully unaware of their exalted international status and these are the crown jewels of Kashmiri cuisine. Delightfully meaty, the Kashmiri gucchi has a rich nutty, woody flavour and my friend’s mother loved speckling her vegetable pulaos with them.
The greens, lotus stems, and other natural resources of the Kashmiri cuisine
In a series of invitations from Kashmiri families on my later visits, I got introduced to the delicious Dum Aloo (whole baby potatoes cooked in yogurt gravy), Dhania korma (mutton cooked in wonderfully scented coriander paste), Waza Palak (mini mutton balls cooked in baby spinach gravy), Doudha Ras (mutton cooked in sweet milky sauce) and Nadru Macchi (spicy sweet water fish cooked with lotus roots and greens). Kashmiri cuisine also has an excellent array of game dishes and there are some rare preparations like chicken cooked in white sauce and saffron.
Kashmiri cuisine needs patience and an eye for details
By now, it is quite evident that I love food and Kashmiri cuisine is sinfully rich and flavourful. It is undeniably not the healthiest cuisine in the world and definitely one of the most complicated I have ever known. In fact, just the preparation of the meatballs needs the labour of a couple of people for a few hours. The meat and fat are separately pounded and then mixed together skillfully to render the melt in your mouth texture. Patience and attention to details are the keywords to fine food and Kashmiri cuisine definitely requires loads of both. Beautiful natural resources add gorgeous textures and flavours to Kashmiri dishes and spices like saffron, and Degi Mirch is popular all over the world.
Kashmiri cuisine uses a lot of natural ingredients
Degi mirch/Kashmiri chili powder is a unique blend of red capsicums and Kashmiri red chilies and is known for its lovely colour and mild heat. Kashmiri cuisine also includes some excellent preparations of lotus roots or nadru. Lotus roots are popular all across North India and the Kashmiris simply love them. They are sold in bunches at every produce market, from shikaras/gondolas, from pushcarts or at traffic lights and by busy roads. Kashmiris are quite nutty people and their state produces the finest almonds and excellent thin-shelled walnuts. Apples and chestnuts are quite popular and the heavily exported Kashmiri apples are highly popular across the Indian mainland.
The wazas are the uncrowned kings of the Kashmiri cuisine
No discussion on Kashmiri cuisine can be complete without mention of the wazwan, a multi-course feast for a king. Prepared by traditional chefs called wazas, more than 40 different dishes are served on a communal plate called trami. Shared by 4 people, a trami as an integral part of wazwan, as the wazas, who are the flag bearers of this historical art of cooking. Wazwan is believed to date from the 14th century when the Mongol invader Timur Lane brought with him weavers, artisans, cooks, and wood carvers. He introduced them to Kashmir valley once it was annexed to his empire and the wazas fiercely protect the recipes of their wazwan dishes. These recipes are handed down in the family from father to son and wazas are in great demand during the wedding season in Kashmir. Wazwan is best enjoyed at a Kashmiri wedding feast and some restaurants like Mughal Durbar in Srinagar tosses up mini wazwan platters as well.
The must-have dishes of Kashmir
The not to be missed dishes to be tried in the Kashmiri cuisine are quite a few and I will mention only the most drool-worthy ones. Some of the most note-worthy delicacies are Roganjosh (mutton cooked in Kashmiri chili sauce), Aabgosht ( mutton cooked in milk), Rista ( Meatball curry), Tabak Maaz (ribs of lamb simmered in yogurt till tender, then fried), Gushtaba (melt in the mouth meatballs in white yogurt gravy), Yakhni (delicately spiced yogurt curry), Mirch Korma (small mutton bits cooked in chillies), and Kebabs. A wazwan is usually concluded with the sinfully rich Phirni (a thick, creamy milk pudding flavored with cardamom, saffron, and slivered nuts and papery silver leaves.
The sweet endings of the Kashmiri cuisine
Sweet endings are an essential part of Kashmiri cuisine and Srinagar has some excellent bakeries. If in Srinagar, do try the locally baked cakes or pastries. Light, creamy and fluffy they just melt in your mouth. Also try out Tsot, small round bread topped with poppy and sesame seeds, lavas (unleavened bread), sheermal, baqerkhani and kulchas are also must try items at these bakeries. Don’t forget to wash them down with your cuppa of pink nun chai (a traditional tea drink made with a type of green tea leaves, milk, and baking soda) or kahwa (an aromatic tea made by boiling green tea leaves with saffron, cinnamon, cardamom, and served with sugar/honey and crushed walnuts/almonds).
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