Winter seems are knocking at the doors, after the mystic autumn. A trailer of this was seen on last weekend. Although winter has many things to look forward to, but culinary delights are very important parts of these 3 to 4 months. One of the delicacies, however, is Harissa, a morning mutton dish which signifies both life and ritual in the entire valley; it is specific for the coldest months. It is basically a mixture of Kashmiri sticky rice with legs of a goat, condiments like cinnamon, fennel seeds, cloves, cardamom, black pepper and shallots (Praan in local language). Cooking it is not everybody’s cup of tea. It needs not only hard work, but fine skill.
The word Harissa comes from an Arabic verse “Harassa” which literally means to pound or to crush and was originally used to describe a gruel of wheat, butter, meat and certain spices and dates back to 7th century. It became synonymous with the Tunisian paste of several condiments mainly roasted red pepper spices such as garlic paste. Cumin seeds, coriander seeds and olive oil and sometimes rose petals are other accompaniments. It is a part of the culinary history of Tunisia and an entire literature on the history, regional, and family-to-family interpretation is available. It is also described as “Tunisia’s main condiment even the “National Condiment of Tunisia” and the hall mark of Tunisia’s meat and fish dishes and also added with soups and stews. Tunisia is the biggest exporter of prepared harissa. In 2006, the Tunisian production of harissa was 22,000 tonnes, incorporating about 40,000 tonnes of peppers. Besides, it is an important ingredient of soups and dishes in Algeria, Morocco and Israel.
It is also a well-known dish in Saudi Arabia and also Armenia with the same basic characteristics of a coarsely ground wheat, mixed with meat and seasoned with a consistency varying between porridge and a gruel. Harees is a popular dish known in Arabian states of the Persian Gulf. It is consumed especially in the month of Ramadan and is called Harisa as an Armenian dish from the plains of Ararat.
Harissa is believed to be introduced in Kashmir valley by Persian Sufi scholar Mir Syed Ali Hamdani in 14th century who came to Kashmir thrice with a noble mission of spreading the religion of Islam and arrived in Kashmir for the first time in 1372. Haleem and Khichra are dishes with some similarities with Kashmiri Harissa. They also originated as an Arabic dish with meat and pounded wheat with herbs and spices during the rule of the sixth Nizam, Mahbub Ali Khan and during the regimen of 7th Nizam, Mir Osman Ali Khan. Haleem is a paste while Khichra has mutton cubes when served. Typically, Haleem is waterier and not like the thick paste as Harissa.
Harissa in Kashmir became established as a breakfast delicacy during the time of Moghuls. It is a traditional dish made by specialized cooks called harisaguyrs who are based historically at Saraf Kadal and Ali Kadal areas of the downtown of Srinagar. The business has also extended to the Lal Chowk area and many other places in Srinagar but it is a poor imitation. The cooks start cooking it late in the evening and mix the ingredients including rice, condiments, delicate spices and legs of goat in large earthen ware vessel - “Degs”. They then let it cook on sim hear for at least 6 to 8 hours. This is the time when the “wosta” (chef) dozes off for 3 to 4 hours till 4 am. The labour starts now, the bones have already separated off and are removed and the contents are stirred and simultaneously mashed till it becomes a thick paste. At this stage boiling and smoky mustard oil and some milk is poured while the wooden masher is continuing to stir. Small kebabs are made to be served along with, and also a small serving of methi maaz (lamb’s intestines cooked in fenugreek) and tempered onion rings. It is served steaming hot with a sprinkling of flaming mustard oil. It goes well with Kashmiri morning bread,girda (circular shaped, with pizza-like puffed borders and a dimpled surface). Girda also serves the purpose of a scoop lifting the sticky paste to the open and watering mouth. No beverages are served along with it. It is a concentrated and focussed treat of Harissa. This real treat during the coldest months of Chillai Kalan is full of fat and calories to give real warmth during the freezing temperatures.
In the recent years affluent families send large quantities of Harissa, prepared by chefs, to the families of their newly wed daughters. During the recent years since the recipes are easily available, it is also made commonly at homes. Tinned Harissa is also exported for connoisseurs living in different parts of the world. The health-conscious people use chicken instead of mutton. However, the aroma, and the ambience of having it steaming hot the traditional way in Downtown Srinagar at selected places is no match to these attempts. For a healthier heart it should be consumed and enjoyed sparingly only and not at the cost of regular exercise and other preventive measures.
Harissa is truly a Kashmiri winter, royal breakfast cuisine and is a part of our culture and ethos.
Prof Upendra Kaul Founder Director Gauri Kaul Foundation. Recipient of Padma Shri and Dr B C Roy Award.
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.