On the surface, Kashmir can look like paradise on Earth. Rolling hills, snow-capped peaks and the crystal-clear waters of Dal Lake, everything about the place is the textbook definition of idyllic. But beneath that perfect exterior simmers a communal disparity that has overtaken its many positive attributes to become the defining identity of the region. However if we look beyond the politicism there still lies a rich and diverse culinary history that spans generations and remains untouched by the failures of modern life.
The most well-known facet of Kashmiri food is of course the Wazwan, the Kashmiri-Muslim feast sometimes made up of dozens of dishes and is heavily meat-based. The Kashmiri Pandits however create dishes that are much milder which includes no beef or pork, but does offer chicken, mutton, lamb and vegetarian options.
Aside from these delicacies, there are latent treasures that people rarely have the chance to experience in the outside world, and it was these hidden gems that Chef Thomas Zacharias was on a mission to discover. In his time in the kitchens of Bombay Canteen Chef Thomas has made a name for himself as a hero of local cuisines, he’s retracing old recipes and forgotten indigenous produce and reinventing them for the modern generation. His learning process is unusual in the world of Indian chefs, he makes it a point to visit new states, towns and cities constantly reinventing his palate. His journey through Kashmir was yet another expedition into the unknown and he’s brought us back a smorgasbord of culinary knowledge.
Read on for Chef Thomas Zacharias’ personal journey into the food culture of Kashmir.
The 100-year-old establishment near the station was our first stop. They serve traditional Wazwan cuisine and while we ate, the owner told me all about the history and how people are no longer staying true to old flavours.
Opened in 1918, Adhoos has been at the fore of India’s turbulent and everchanging history. It bore witness to the bloody days of The Partition and served as a refuge for journalists with non-stop deadlines at any time of the day or night, where they were plied with hot food and tea as a fax machine whirred away in the corner. When every other restaurant in Srinagar closed its doors, Ahdoos stood defiantly open and always ready with good food and a warm welcome.
We then went to Cafe Chai Jaai – one of the only places in Kashmir doing something similar to what we’re doing at Bombay Canteen, they’re celebrating local flavours but in a modern way. Harissa, teas, breads, all the favourites made an appearance but in a radically different form. It was nice to find someone trying to showcase those food traditions and it echoes what’s happening around the country with Chefs trying to instill a deeper sense of identity with their cuisines.
We had the opportunity to visit a real courtyard kitchen and in the backyard they set up a makeshift butchery and nearby others were fanning a traditional Gushtaba (spicy meatballs in yoghourt gravy) on an open flame. Though I can’t bring back these rustic elements, I’ve been trying to replicate that in a modern kitchen.
We visited multiple homes and though the food varied, I was struck by the visual diversity. All were carpeted but each expressed a distinct Kashmiri sttyles. To get that authentic experience outside a home setting, I recommend Kareema. It’s been around for 20 years, nobody knows it but the locals. They have refined, balanced Wazwan flavours and no tourists. Though there are always locals queuing out the door. I also envy their 20 item menu, they know what they’re good at and they keep it simple.
Wazwan in its true form is only found at wedding 35 is an exaggeration, 7-8, some base things with additions up to 15-20 to make it more elaborate. It ususally starts with Seekh Kabab, Tabak Maaz (breast of a sheep crisped like a pork belly) and Maithi Maaz, a tripe and methi dish and also the only offal dish in the Wazwan, krista - pounded meat in Kashmir chilli, Rogan Josh and Mirch Magan Korma – undoubtedly the spiciest dish there and usually rounds out with Gushtaba.
One of the most exciting visits was to the traditional Harissa-maker. (Editors note: To put an end to the confusion before it begins, contrary to the popular meaning, Kashmiri Harissa is a spiced lamb curry, not the chilli-based sauce). This is only available in Winter, and is similar to the popular dish, Haleem except it’s made using rice instead of wheat. The meat is flambeed on an open flame with mustard oil to add smokiness and served with the local bread, Girda.
The amazing thing is that their deep, soulful flavours echo their nature, everyone’s so warm and hospitable. They have a wonderful respect for their produce which even makes its way into their language. There’s a saying in Kashmir that goes, ‘When the lotus root goes out, the egglant comes in.’ They don’t eat anything outside the seasonal vegetables and it’s become quite a philosophical affair.
A Kandur And Noon Chai Afternoon
Unlike in most of India, bread in Kashmir isn’t eaten with the meal but usually with tea as an afternoon snack. At the local Kandurs, they make different types of bread at different times of day and it’s traditionally enjoyed alongside some noon chai. We stopped at a chai stall near the taxi stand and decided to try it for ourselves, the pink noon chai is salty, flavoured with baking soda, and though it was very warming in the cold, it’s definitely an acquired taste.
In Palghar I met with my friend , Ramneet Kaur who runs an NGO that supports shepherds in the community. There are two communities, the Gujjars who live on the plains and the Bakarwals who reside in the mountains. Even though they live in close proximity, their cuisine is very different they both however rely on what they have easy access to. In a village called Laganbal we got to taste some home-cooked food; foraged greens, kidney beans (rajma), and unlike the rest of the state, they eat bread with their main meal, usually a corn based roti (makki ki roti).
There’s a local cheese factory in the area, run by a Dutch man, Chris Xander (check spelling) which rolls out cheese in a variety of Western styles but incorporating local ingredients like garlic and nettles. One of my favourites was the Kalari, a typical Kashmiri cheese that’s rolled falt and when pan-seared becomes stringy like Mozzarella.
To add to the local economy, Ramneet’s NGO also helps create local honeys and jams that are then shipped across the state. We also got to try a local variation of trout (a fish that was introduced during the British rule) even though fish features very rarely in the Kashmiri diet and the only truely local species is Gad that’s eaten mainly by the Kashmiri Pandit community. It was cooked in mustard oil will Ver masala, a spice mix that is packed into little cakes that can be easily stored and pieces broken off when needed.
It was her that I really experienced the essence of Kashmiri Pandit cuisine. I was invited into the home of Rajni Aunty where she taught me a few of her favourite dishes. It was the nuaces of the process that impressed me most. Like when things are added or the specificity of the combinations, for example she told me she’d never use black pepper with Kashmiri chilli as they’re contrasting heats and that yoghurt is mixed with water and reduced to avoid splitting. There’s lot’s of wisdom in their cooking. I also discovered the Kashmiri Pandit version of Rogan Josh, which is made without onions.
The key flavour classifications are Wazwan and Pandit, and they have lots of things in common. Their dishes are often the same things but with different names. Kashmiris rarely use tomatoes, and of course the Pandits don’t use onions. None of their food feels heavy, even something I’d come to think of as heavy like Rogan Josh was light and flavourful. When I left for Kashmir I never expected to want to bring back something as simple as Rogan Josh, I had preconceived notions of what it should taste like but now I’m striving to recreate their subtlety in my kitchen. I believe that there are some cuisines that feel more evolved than others like that of my hometown, Kerala, then Bengal and now Kashmir, there’s clearly been lots of refinement over the centuries.
All images by Sumedh Natu