Kashmir by virtue of its location in the scenic Himalayas has always attracted travellers, ascetics, voyagers and explorers who have travelled long distances to this jewel in the Himalayan crown. These travellers have come and significantly contributed to the idea of Kashmiriyat that has come to inform our understanding of this region. In this quest, the Kashmiri Wazwan cuisine has acted as a catalyst and absorbed various characteristics from different culinary traditions brought to the valley by these travellers.
Kashmir was introduced to Persian and Uzbek flavours due to its interaction with merchants along the historical Silk Route. Similarly, the Timurid invasion to the subcontinent lay the foundation of the Wazwan cuisine in Kashmir. It is believed that Taimur or Tamerlane brought wazas (chefs) with him from distant Samarqand in Uzbekistan to Kashmir and these wazas acclimatised our taste buds to Persian, Afghan and Turkish cuisines over a significant period of time. Interestingly, this blend of rich and diverse cuisines gave birth to the conventional Wazwan cuisine as we know it today.
Cultural Marker of Identity
The Wazwan is a ‘thirty-six dish multi-course meal’ that is every gourmand’s dream. If an indigenous Kashmiri person invites you for Wazwan, one should consider oneself fortunate for it symbolises the enduring relationship of mutual trust and admiration that exists between the mezbaan (host) and mehmaan (guest). In fact, the manner in which the Wazwan is served to the guest speaks volumes about the Tehzeeb (culture) that forms an integral part of the notion of Kashmiriyat.
The Dastarkhwan (dining area) is prepared by the mezban (host) for the arrival of the mehman (guest) with great warmth and affection as spotless white sheets are laid on beautiful and ornate Kashmiri carpets. As people sit in groups of four to partake of the food, an attendant carries an hourglass shaped copper vessel, Tasht-e- Narer which contains lukewarm water that is used by people to wash their hands.
Mélange of Flavours
The dishes which are served as part of the Wazwan usually take several hours to prepare and it is the Wasta Waza (Head Chef) who is at the helm of affairs for he painstakingly oversees and ensures that every dish is upto the mark. Traditionally served in a tirami that involves a traditional arrangement of the food in a thali or a vessel where a mound of rice is neatly divided by four seekh kebabs and methi korma. Therefore, Kashmiri Wazwan cuisine includes mainly meat dishes but could consist of some sumptuous vegetarian preparations as well. Some of the most well known dishes which form an integral part of the Wazwan menu include Tabaq Maz which are golden brown ribs cooked with traditional spices. It is made with milk. Rogan Josh which includes shoulder meat cooked with mawal (cockscomb flower) apart from other delicacies like the Sabz Haak which is a delectable concoction of spinach like leafy greens cooked with mustard oil. It is an essential part of the Wazwan and the special Kashmir ver is used in its preparation.
Interesting additions to this list include the Marswangan Korma which like the name suggests is a fiery dish that includes a fair amount of chilies. The Doon Chetin is a walnut flavoured chutney with curd and chillies that is a staple as well. The traditional Kashmiri Pulao with its aromatic flavours is a favourite assortment of the Wazwan. Afterall, Kashmiris are traditionally rice eaters as well. The Wazwan cuisine also includes dishes like the indigenous Rishta, a hand pounded meat preparation that is richly marinated in a saffron- paprika- fennel preparation in addition to the Daniwal Korma that is a typical meat preparation cooked with yogurt and ghee or clarified butter.
The Aab Gosht also constitutes an important part of the meal which is a lamb preparation with a fennel based spice mixture and milk. The Nadru Yakhni is a classic dish as well that comprises lotus stems cooked in Yakhni (gravy). It is a traditional favourite of vegetarians although a non-vegetarian variant also exists. The final dish served during the course of a Wazwan is Goshtaba, which is a pounded meat ball curry with cardamom pods and ginger.
The traditional Wazwan thus consists of roughly twenty odd meat dishes. However, one is capable of enjoying every meat preparation without any difficulty because the Wazwan cuisine ensures a rich balance of flavours so that you enjoy the entire culinary experience without worrying about over eating anything! Interestingly, food critics themselves note with great enthusiasm that the beauty of the Wazwan cuisine lies in this subtle balance of flavours that appeals to all food lovers across the world making this cuisine so famous.
Joie de Vivre
While it is enjoyed by food connoisseurs across the board, an ode to the Wazwan is definitely incomplete without a short but essential discussion on its role in spreading communal harmony in the Kashmir Valley. In fact, variations of the Wazwan are to be found as the Pandit community and the Muslim community both have their own versions of the Wazwan and other Kashmiri dishes. For example, Pandits enjoy eating Tahar (turmeric rice) with tcharvun (cooked liver). An interesting dish that is left to simmer at night is the Shab Deg that is a meat preparation made with turnips. The Dum Aloo Kashmiri which is a humble potato dish is important as well. Historian Chitralekha Zutshi states that having food in Kashmir is akin to celebrating life because Kashmiris have a special bond with their food. She recounts a personal anecdote and tells us how her mother was an exceptionally good cook who grew sochal and haakh in their own backyard for a Kashmiri’s existence is incomplete without their food.
Both the Pandit and the Muslim community enjoy eating their culinary preparations together thus enabling us to understand how food can act as a catalyst in unifying diverse communities and societies. This sense of brotherhood is further enhanced by a cup of noon chai or sheer chai and the lovely zaffran (saffron) flavoured Kahwa poured out of samovars add to the lived experiences of Kashmiris who often come together for a cup of tea after a long dreary day at work.
Thus, Kashmiri food brings people of different religious communities together giving a new meaning to the notion of Kashmiri composite culture. After all, it is this inherent love shared between people that manifests itself in the dastarkhwan (dining area) that makes this experience of enjoying the Wazwan cuisine all the more unique and special. Undoubtedly, the Kashmiri Wazwan cuisine is a veritable cornucopia of infinite pleasure!
Anuttama Banerji is a Freelance Features
Writer & Political Commentator
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK