Nestled in the giant Himalayas – the Vale of Kashmir has a unique culture, besides snow clad peaks, bewitching natural beauty and the refreshing water of Jhelum. To combat the ice cold winter, people in Kashmir make numerous changes in their wont, behavior as well as in the disposition of their abodes. In the bone chilling cold of Chile Kalan (coldest month of Kashmiri winter) people here put the age old tradition of Houk Seun (Dried Vegetables) into practice. Kashmiris start preparing themselves for the harsh winter in the scorching summer by drying and dehydrating vegetables in copious sunlight and storing them for the impending winter.
Kashmiri Houk Seun mostly includes dried and dehydrated tomatoes (Ruwagan hachi), bottle gourds (Alle hachi), Aubergines (Wangan hachi) and dandelion greens (hooch Handi).
Bottle gourds are peeled and cut into wheel like round slices or thin long strips and stretched over wooden or plastic trays to dehydrate them. Round slices are usually threaded in long garlands and hung on the front walls to dehydrate in the sun.
Fresh tomatoes are sliced and converted into cross shaped entities and stretched over trays for efficient drying in the sun to form Ruwagan Hachi (Dried tomatoes). Similarly, other veggies are managed and converted into their respective dried foods and stored in paper or polythene bags.
Although dying method of food preservation is used by people round the globe but the procedures and techniques used in Kashmir have no match in the world, that is for sure.
Houk Seun is largely produced in our hamlets. Vegetables are grown mostly in rural areas in abundance and people here prefer drying and storing them for the winter. Besides reserving Houk Seun for themselves, they supply it to the cities in abundance to earn significant sums. People living in cities love having Houk Seun as a special winter cuisine despite the availability of fresh veggies. In the past when heavy snowfall would jam the srinagar – Jammu highway and halt the traffic, food shortages would crop up in the Vale. Hence, sun-dried vegetables used to be the sole option for most Kashmiris. Now the circumstances have changed and there is copious supply of fresh fruit and vegetables in Kashmir. It sounds absolutely freakish that despite the availability of fresh and comparatively more nutritious vegetables, people prefer purchasing their dried forms at double cost. Well, I think it is their yearning and stupendous love for this age old tradition which compel them to cherish Houk Seun in this day and age.
“Our ancestors would eat Houk Seun voraciously almost throughout the year”, claims my aunt who in her 60s, loves having Houk suen. She is a COPD patient and claims that Houk Seun gives her significant amelioration and lessens her symptoms. “The more tech-savvy this world becomes, the more it suffers “, she believes.
People still consume Houk Seun and regard it as a medicine for different lethal diseases. For e.g., dried bottle gourds (Alhech) are believed to abate the sufferings of people suffering from cough and common cold, dandelion greens ( hooch hand) is still consumed by new mothers to increase hemoglobin levels. It is now scientifically acceptable that Kashmiri dried vegetables can relieve constipation because of their high fiber content.
Above all, it seems pertinent to mention that Kashmiri dried vegetables leaven the relationships between Kashmiri Muslims and their migrated Pandith brothers. Every year, our Padith brothers love receiving Houk Seun along with other locally grown fruits like walnuts, almonds, delicious apples etc. as a gift that strengthens the bonds of our divine relationship.
Well, Kashmir being a conservative society usually resists changes in its culture and age old traditions. People living here are pretty cultured and have some mysterious bonding with their way of living. So, I guess that the decades old tradition of Houk suin will not disappear from this beautiful chunk of land called Kashmir.
Although some people consume Houk Seun to keep this tradition alive and kicking but it remains the only option for most people in Kashmir during the terrible winters.
Tasaduq Maqbool Bhat is a student at South Campus, University of Kashmir.