If there is a heaven on earth… It is here, it is here, it is here.
This is a line from the famous Urdu couplet by Amir Khusrow, who described Kashmir in these words.
Truer words were never spoken. Those living in this part of the country know a thing or two about perfection. They wake up every morning and see it around them. This is Srinagar, heaven on earth.
For six of the warmer months, this ancient city used to be the capital of Kashmir, a place notorious for all the wrong reasons. However tragic they seem, the people here are proud of their past and hopeful of whatever the future might bring. Although these unfortunate circumstances affect their lives, one aspect remains unaffected. Tradition.
The weather here is similar to that of temperate European countries. As a result, some of the most exclusive Indian ingredients are found here.
• Cocks Comb
• Pinenuts & walnuts
• Zirish (locally found berry)
• Kashmiri red chilly
Indian spices and cooking techniques combine with local flavours to create one of the most complex cuisines in India. The best of which is reflected during a traditional Kashmiri Muslim wedding, where, in the hands of a master, sampling this cuisine becomes something of an occasion.
Food served at these weddings; in my opinion, it is “Gourmet” in every aspect and in some ways even makes French haute cuisine seem slightly pedestrian.
To unearth the truth of this highly blasphemous statement, one needs to be invited to a traditional Kashmiri wedding. Here, one may experience an authentic Wazwan meal in all its scintillating brilliance. If you aren’t invited to one, you may get an idea at any restaurant claiming to serve authentic Wazwan cuisine. But you’ll be disappointed nine times out of ten. These dishes are exclusive, and like most sophisticated cuisines, depend on more than just a guy who knows the recipes. This is why Kashmiri cuisine is the most abused and least understood cuisine in India.
Waz (chef) + Wan (shop selling delicious food) = Wazwan.
This food is served as part of a social eating ceremony, essential during important social events. Food is prepared by a brigade of (Waz) chefs and assistants, hired to cater for the wedding. The head chef (Vasta Waza) usually oversees everything and appraises the taste of the final product. The food and expertise of a Waza sets him apart. Just like Japanese sushi masters, this requires a lifestyle involving discipline and dedication. This is why the head chef of a brigade is given the respected title “Ustaad” or master.
The way it’s served is what makes this food even more special. Guests are made to sit on cushions in groups of (typically) four around a huge silver plate, the traami. Somehow, when this kind of food is served on a silver platter, it gives off, I daresay, a rather twinkly and surreal aura.
4 pax Wazwan meal setting
This is when the magic begins.
Traditionally, THIRTY SIX components are served on each traami. Like the classical 18 course French menu, they each have a role to play. Individual components are grouped into courses: four types of kebabs together make up one course, along with the necessary accompaniments. Whenever a course is eaten, a new plate is brought. Unlike the French menu, they are all served on the same plate along with a heap of rice, meant to be shared among the four guests, and eaten by hand. This is more of a communal eating ceremony as opposed to a dining experience. Either way, the food usually makes everyone happy so no one seems to question tradition.
Unlike Jammu, the cuisine in Srinagar features protein. Lots of it. Lamb, not goat, is the most popular one, followed by chicken (kokur) and locally found fish, such as trout. The Wazwan meal is a carnivore’s dream and is one of the only preparations in India which cannot be accurately replicated for vegetarians. It contains at least 25 non vegetarian components out of the total 36.
These components usually include local variations of Kebabs — roasted chunks or minced meat, eaten as appetizers. The most famous one is called Kabargah or tabak maaz. Lamb ribs are soaked, then simmered and cooked in spices and milk. Finally they are browned using mustard oil or butter.
Fennel (saunf) and dried ginger (saunth) are local flavourings used extensively in Kashmiri cuisine. These are used to flavour various dishes. Meat dishes in thin gravies characteristically use chunks of meat or kofta (minced meat).
Some important Wazwan main course components include:
- Rogan Josh: Probably the most abused recipe out there. I’ll talk about this in great detail in my upcoming post, Alkanna tinctoria.
- Moachi Kebab: Lamb mince, flattened (like the middle eastern kofte) and cooked in a yogurt-based gravy. In fact, most gravies here use yogurt, milk or stock (yakhni). They are also distinctly watery. This is because rice is the traditional accompaniment, not bread. If you come across a Kashmiri gravy that has a thick onion-tomato base, chances are its made by anyone but someone Kashmiri.
- Doudha Ras: “Doudh” means milk. This dish involves lamb being cooked in a sweetened milk based gravy. Complicated recipes such as this require lots of practice to execute.
- Dhaniwal Quorma: “Dhaniwal” or anything with dhania (corriander) means it involves a coriander-based gravy. This one is a thin gravy with lamb and quite a lot of coriander (not Cilantro).
- Aab Gosht: Aab means white. This dish is also milk-based but unlike Doudha ras, it is not sweet.
- Marchwangan quorma: Marchwangan is Kashmiri red chilly. This dish uses chunks of lamb in a fiery red but rather subtle Kashmiri chilli and onion based gravy.
- Yakhni: Kashmiri Master Stock. This is what sets this cuisine apart from others. A perfect stock forms the basis of any gravy/sauce in any cuisine. Haute cuisine uses a variety of them (fond, fumet, buillon). Wazwan cuisine has Yakhni, which is a flavorful lamb stock combined with yogurt and fragrant Indian spices.
- Chaaman: Usually a vegetarian gravy served with cubes of cottage cheese (paneer). It has a tomato base.
Two signature dishes, rista and gushtaba, are especially difficult to make. Tradition demands that chunks of meat be pounded manually along with strands of fat. This gives a signature velvety texture unlike anything else found anywhere else. Gushtaba and rista are some of the hardest dishes to perfect. The care and hard work brings out sophisticated and delicate flavours.
Wazwan also features chutneys made from local fruits like plum. Apart from these, local vegetables such as lotus stem (nadru) and haq, a local spinach variant, also make an appearance. Mustard oil is the preferred oil in this cuisine.
Desserts include phirni and in some cases, a special dessert called Gil–e-firdaus (condensed milk based dessert, like kheer).
Each of these dishes are very different from each other. They rely on finesse through practice and wisdom, both attained through years of training and dedication. Among all the cuisines of India, this is by far the most “Gourmet”, depending on your interpretation. After all, nearly all Western culinary terms have French origin. Even the term “culinary” is French. Unsurprisingly, so is “gourmet”. Gourmet is usually a term associated with the pursuit of culinary refinement and excellence. A person is considered a gourmet when he or she upholds these values and works towards inculcating them. A cuisine is called gourmet when it exemplifies finesse and perfection; French haute cuisine is considered the epitome of gastronomic sophistication.
Is gourmet restricted to only sophisticated Western cuisine? Does it have to be decadent, expensive and complicated? Can home-cooked food be “gourmet” as well?
It all comes down to opinion. However, in my opinion it must include two things. Passion and perfection.
Passion means spending time and energy to do something that, in truth, can be done in an easier alternative way. For example, you could spend hours trying to prepare a flavourful stock from scratch, using good quality produce.
Or you could achieve a similar product by using stock cubes off a shelf at a store or using technical shortcuts.
As I said, it comes down to how the gourmet inside you perceives perfection.