The Kashmiri Food Story
I have always been intrigued and interested in Kashmir, an ancient province with a tumultuous history and present. The beauty of the mountains, the otherworldly landscape, the most beautiful people and above all that- a unique food culture- are what have always piqued my interest. I’ve been to Kashmir as a child and once as an adult and my memories of it go beyond the valleys, the snow and the flowers and straight into my plate.
For a meat lover, this cuisine is ideal. Tabakhmaas, rogan josh, goshtaba and aab ghosht are just a few names that get my mouth watering. Kashmiri food isn’t just limited to meat as the region is quite famous for their bakery tradition as well. The most popular dish being their sheermal (a puff pastry), lavas (unleavened bread) and kulchas.They have something called the baker khani, which is typically consumed during breakfast. It is similar to a naan in appearance, but one which is layered and sprinkled with sesame seeds. This is served for breakfast or had with the famous “noon chai”.
This brings me to the interesting concept of the tea-drinking culture practiced here. ‘Noon’ means salt in the Kashmiri language. One of the most popular drinks is this concoction of black tea, milk and salt with the addition of soda bicarbonate. Another, more well-known drink is the kahwah which is a green tea made with saffron, spices and almonds.
Being mainly rice eaters, most Kashmiris consume meat in high quantities. This traditional cuisine is highly influenced from the culinary styles of the regions of Afghanistan, Persia and Central Asia. There is a high usage of yoghurt and turmeric in most of their dishes. While most Kashmiri food generally avoid the use of garlic and onion, spices like clove, cinnamon, cardamom and fennel are used giving it a deeper flavour profile on a mild palette. The region boasts of being the leading producer and exporter of saffron and uses this ingredient in several dishes adding an exquisite aroma to any kitchen you step into. Ghee has been an age-old base to cook most Kashmiri dishes, however, the modern and health conscious families in Kashmir have now switched to mustard oil.
One of my favourite memory of Kashmir was eating a wazwan meal in a boat-house on Dal Lake. I remember asking my father how was it possible for one person to make so many things to eat. He told me that the ‘waz’ was a highly-gifted person who represents his culture through his food. A wazwan meal traditionally comprises of thirty-six courses, out of which most of them are meat-based. This meal is served in a large copper platter called a traem which you share with others.
The plate is heaped with rice and then with tabak maaz (barbequed lamb ribs), four methi kormas which consist of chicken or mutton, seekh kebabs. There are some must-have dishes in the wazwan meal; rista, which is a spicy preparation of meatballs, rogan josh, which is a made with grounded Kashmiri chillies and yoghurt and whole spices, gushtaba, which is a yoghurt based gravy with meatballs andaab ghosht which is lamb prepared with thickened milk and cardamom and fennel based.
Accompaniments such as chutneys, dips or saffron garnished yoghurt are served in small earthen pots. The entire experience of a wazwan meal makes you feel culturally full as you intake the food rich in heritage which is served with extreme pride.
Another type of cuisine found in Kashmir is one consumed by the Kashmiri Pundits, who are one of the few Brahmin communities in India that include non-vegetarian food in their diets. The meats are usually marinated in yoghurt or saffron milk. The preparations are quite similar to that of the wazwan style with a slight difference in texture and taste. Kashmiri Pundits do not use onion or garlic in their cooking, however they use a lot of asafoetida or heeng to impart flavour.
Vegetarian, don’t stop reading just yet, there are tons of options for you too! In a land that is well known for its beauty and nature, you find lots of fresh vegetables that are native to the region. Kashmiris make use potatoes, turnips, radish, lotus stems and haak most commonly. Impressive dishes that are slowly simmered and cooked in mustard oil with spices like fennel and star anise that create flavourful profiles on the plate. Some well-known dishes are the dum aloo, haak, razmah goagji (a rajma dish) and nadier palak (a spinach dish).
Kashmir is known to be one of the most picturesque destinations in the world and if you’re lucky enough to visit, you will realize it’s magic goes beyond the breath-taking views. The cuisine here has a long history and tradition which tells a story of a strong culture making the most of their surroundings.
I’ve enjoyed learning as much as I could about this culturally rich cuisine. If you’re looking for an authentic Kashmiri meal in Mumbai, Poush has been around for a while and gives you a good sense of the traditional food. Do visit and tell us what you think about the cuisine and validate my awe for this majestic gastronomical affair.