On the occasion of the 77th year of independence, we traversed through the culinary lanes of Kashmir and Meghalaya

Indulge in an appetising yet informative conversation with chefs Tanisha and Vanika about the magic of Meghalaya and Kashmiri cuisines

On the occasion of the 77th year of independence, we traversed through the culinary lanes of Kashmir and Meghalaya

The hidden gems of Indian cuisine are not just a delight to the palate but also a testament to the unity that food fosters among people. Through the ages, regional cuisines have passed down treasured recipes, steeped in tradition and crafted with love. From the ancient spice routes that introduced the world to spices, to the invasions that left a lasting impact on the culinary landscape, there’s a lot more to Indian cuisine under the surface that we have just begun to scratch. India boasts a vast and diverse culinary heritage with numerous regional cuisines. Each region showcases unique dishes, reflecting local traditions and ingredients, making India a true culinary paradise.

But today we will unravel the flavours of Meghalaya and Kashmiri Cuisine. In conversation with Tanisha Phanbuh—Founder of Tribal Gourmet and a culinary maven—and chef Vanika Choudhary—Founder of restaurants Sequel and Noon (Noon is named after the Kashmiri word for salt)—we discover the basics of the fascinating worlds of Meghalayan and Kashmiri cuisine.

Read on to know more about these cuisines from the women themselves.

Edited excerpts from the interview.

What are some staple ingredients used to give this cuisine its unique flavours?
Tanisha: In Meghalaya, we have three major tribes: the Khasi, Jaintia and Garo. Each of them have their own unique cooking styles. For instance, the Khasi tribe's culinary delights are characterised by the use of fragrant turmeric, bold black pepper, nutty black sesame and the presence of potatoes and rice. The Jaintia Tribe have a similar cuisine but they add a special touch by incorporating jaiur (a winged prickly ash pepper) which adds a delightful zing to their dishes. As for the Garo tribe, their love for fiery flavours is evident in their generous use of fresh ginger and fiery chillies. They even use khalchi (the ash of a banana), to create unique and delectable dishes.

Vanika: In Kashmiri cuisine we use a rich blend of spices which are known for their heat and aroma. I cherish the traditional recipes passed down through generations, like my mom's ver tikki (a unique preparation of ground Kashmiri chillies and whole spices shaped into doughnut-like patties before they are sun dried). Kashmiri saffron is significant in our food, especially when preparing pulaos. Shahi jeera, foraged from the valley of Kashmir, is also quite extensively used. Ghee is a traditional favourite, adding richness and depth to the flavours, however, we reserve the distinct pungency of mustard oil for specific dishes, such as haaq saag. One of the fascinating aspects of our cuisine is the use of mawal (the cockscomb flower) as a natural colouring agent. It imparts a beautiful hue to the dishes, making them visually appealing and alluring. Seasonal treasures like fruits and nuts add a wholesome and nutritious touch to our meals as well.

Does the cuisine employ the use of any special cooking utensils or techniques?
Tanisha: I'm thrilled to see that weiñ, the black clay pots from Meghalaya, are gaining popularity nowadays. In the Khasi and Jaintia tribes weiñ is used to cook dishes like putharo and pusain, which are delicious rice cakes. Garo’s have a fascinating culinary tradition where they use clay pots to ferment rice wine, adding a unique touch to their celebrations and gatherings.

Vanika: Kashmir is lauded for its remarkable copper craft, locally known as kandkari. The use of pot-like utensils called Deg imparts a distinctive taste to the dishes. One intriguing technique I learned from the region is that they marinate mutton in earthenware utensils, which helps maintain its coolness and enhances its texture. The art of cooking traditional Wazwan has its own unique charm. It is traditionally prepared using only sheep meat. To tenderise the meat, it is pounded with a walnut wood hammer on a stone. Another fascinating aspect is the use of old fruit tree logs for preparing food. The choice of wood contributes to the smoky and aromatic essence that is infused in our dishes.

Does the cuisine observe any specific dietary restrictions or preferences?
Tanisha: In traditional Meghalayan cuisine, dairy or dairy products were never a part of our food. Its geographical location made it difficult to rear cattle and produce dairy on a large scale. Our ancestors relied on plant-based foods and locally sourced ingredients, such as rice, fish and vegetables, which perfectly complemented the region's climate and terrain. While modern influences introduced dairy, we take pride in preserving our authentic dairy-free culinary heritage, which remains deeply connected to nature and showcases the rich flavours of our land.

Vanika: In traditional Kashmiri cuisine, rice takes centre stage as the staple food, complemented by a delightful array of meat preparations and essential dairy products. Here the meals are enhanced with hyper-seasonal vegetables like Kashmiri palak, Nauru or lotus root, hand or dandelion greens, Kashmiri turnips, kohlrabi, guchhi, shajjkan mushrooms, haaq saag and dhingri or wild oyster mushrooms. Kashmiri Pandits refrain from using garlic and onion in cooking, instead opt for the distinct taste of hing. The Muslims, on the other hand, embrace the use of both garlic and wild onion called praan. The essence of these meals lies not only in the delicious combination of flavours but also in the deep-rooted connection to culture and heritage.

Can you shed light on certain cultural or religious influences that impact the evolution of this cuisine?
Tanisha: Though the Khasi and Jaintia tribes share the same ancestors, there are slight differences in our beliefs and festivals. For instance, the Jaintia community refrains from consuming beef, in respect to their religious beliefs. On the other hand, within the Khasi community certain clans have specific dietary restrictions tied to their clan names. For instance, the Jyrwa clan avoids eating bamboo shoots as a mark of respect for our ancestors who sought shelter in bamboo groves during times of war.
The British colonial era brought significant changes to our culinary landscape, like tea became an integral part of our culture and we embraced vegetable stews as a delightful addition to our meals. Their influence also brought in the love for cakes and bakes, which have now become cherished treats in our celebrations.

Vanika: The fascinating history of Kashmiri food unfolds back in the 1500s when Timur's invasion brought significant changes to the culinary landscape. With the arrival of migrant workers, including calligraphers, woodcarvers, weavers and skilled cooks from Samarkand (Uzbekistan), a new chapter began in the culinary journey of Kashmir. Kashmir’s renowned Wazwan, owes its origin to this historical event. The invasion by Timur bought waza (cooks) from Samarkand and they played a pivotal role in shaping the culinary tradition of Wazwan.
Today, Wazwan holds immense cultural significance and has become an integral part of the Kashmiri identity. Moreover, this cuisine is deeply intertwined with cultural festivals, each having its unique culinary traditions. Festivals like Navroz, Shivratri and Eid bring to the forefront a plethora of delightful dishes that symbolise the essence of the celebrations.
These occasions present an excellent opportunity to explore the diverse flavours, rituals and customs associated with Kashmiri food.

What are the typical flavours and spice palate of this cuisine?
Tanisha: Khasi food mainly consists of mild and earthy flavours, which I find quite comforting and soulful. On the other hand, having tasted Jaintia and Garo cuisine, I noticed they have a preference for spicier dishes, with a generous use of fresh chilies that add a fiery kick to their meals. Despite the varying spice levels, what remains consistent across all three tribal cuisines is the use of fresh, locally sourced ingredients that truly bring out the authentic taste of Meghalaya.

Vanika: In my experience, Kashmiri cuisine stands apart from its North Indian counterparts due to the distinct array of spices we embrace, which infuse our dishes with unparalleled complexity and depth. The essence of our culinary heritage lies in the delightful aromas of whole spices like cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, shahi zeera, saunth and saunf. These spices not only add exquisite flavours but also create a unique sensory experience that truly captures the essence of Kashmir.

How do the geographical conditions, regional variations or the cultural diversity affect the cuisine?
Tanisha: Living in Meghalaya, I've witnessed firsthand how the geographical and cultural diversity of the North Eastern states profoundly impacts our culinary traditions. Our state is a beautiful mix of hilly landscapes and some plains areas, with the latter being closer to Assam or Bangladesh. These regions experience a warmer and more tropical climate, which favours the abundant growth of fruits and vegetables like bananas, pineapples and jackfruit, making them essential ingredients in our dishes.
Conversely, the hilly parts of Meghalaya receive substantial rainfall and are usually more damp. Here, meats, including smoked and dried varieties hold a significant place on our plates. The availability of mushrooms is also more prominent in these regions. Each community brings its own set of practices, ingredients and cooking styles, which fuse together to create a colourful tapestry of flavours.

Vanika: Absolutely, there are indeed fascinating regional variations within Kashmiri cuisine, beyond the renowned Wazwan, which are widely celebrated. In the realm of Kashmiri Pandit cuisine, one of the most remarkable features is the absence of onion, garlic and tomatoes. It's a culinary journey that deserves more recognition and appreciation, as it holds the essence of tradition and unique flavours that define our Kashmiri heritage. From aromatic and rich dishes to the use of distinctive spices, every element in Kashmiri Pandit cuisine adds to the richness of the cuisine.

How do certain staple ingredients, like fermented food for Meghalaya and fennel and Kashmiri saffron for Kashmir contribute to their respective cuisines?
Tanisha: While each state may have different names and methods for preparing ferments, they remain integral to our culinary heritage. Fermented foods hold a special place in our hearts, not just for their tangy taste but also for their nutritional benefits. One common example is the fermented bean paste, which the Khasis prepare uniquely with black sesame, calling it tungrymbai. These traditional ingredients and cooking practices define the richness and uniqueness of North Eastern cuisine, making it a delightful journey through our culture and love for natural flavours.

Vanika: The use of aromatic spices like saffron and fennel is at the heart of our Kashmiri cuisine, and it defines the distinct flavours that make dishes truly exceptional. In my family, saunth/ginger powder and saunf/fennel powder have been imperative in our recipes, passed down through generations. For instance, the cherished Gucchi pulao would be incomplete without the exquisite touch of saffron, which imparts both a captivating aroma and a beautiful golden hue to the dish. Moreover, no Kashmiri wazwan meal is complete without the comforting Kahwa, a saffron tea infused with the delightful notes of cinnamon and cardamom. The traditional samovar, a Kashmiri kettle, is used to brew, boil, and serve this aromatic tea. In every spoonful and sip, the magic of saffron and fennel takes us on a journey through our cherished Kashmiri traditions.

What are some dishes that one must try when they visit the state?
Tanisha: When visiting the North East, you must try some of our popular street foods and snacks that showcase the region's rich culinary delights. As a local, I highly recommend exploring the traditional rice-based snacks that are truly unique and delicious. One of my favourites is pumaloi, a delectable rice-based snack that pairs perfectly with a cup of tea. The tea sellers, known as Kongs, often carry baskets filled with freshly made snacks like putharo and pudoh, which are delightful to savour. For a heartier treat or a quick meal, head to the local tea stalls, where you'll find a treasure trove of freshly prepared local dishes. Don't miss out on trying putharo (a scrumptious rice cake) and doh neiïong (pork in black sesame). The tea stalls are a hub of authentic North Eastern flavours, and each bite is a celebration of our region's diverse and vibrant food culture.

Kashmiri cuisine is known for its unique bread varieties. Could you describe a few types of bread that are commonly enjoyed in Kashmiri households?
Vanika: Two of my all-time favourite breads in Kashmiri cuisine are Bakirkhani and Katlam. Bakirkhani is more like a pastry, actually. It is made by repeatedly stretching a sheet of dough and interleaving it with ghee before baking it in a tandoor, resulting in a buttery, flaky delight that never fails to satisfy. Similarly, Katlam is a layered bread, with each layer generously brushed with ghee before being baked in the tandoor. The layers create a wonderful texture and add a rich taste to the bread. There’s also girda roti, a simple yet delicious bread with fingerprint impressions. It's a humble bread that carries the authentic flavours of our cuisine. Another unique bread you must try is Czochworu, which is similar to a desi doughnut. The best part about enjoying these bread varieties in Kashmiri households is pairing them with salty pink noon chai. The combination of the bread's textures and the flavours of noon chai creates a truly satisfying and comforting experience.

How, according to you, is the North Eastern Cuisine different from other regional cuisines in India?
Tanisha: One notable distinction that separates the North Eastern cuisine from other Indian cuisines is the absence of masalas in our dishes. Our culinary traditions focus on simplicity, relying on the natural flavours of ingredients, herbs and fermented foods to create wholesome meals. Unlike some other Indian cuisines that involve complex cooking techniques, North Eastern dishes are often prepared with straightforward methods that allow the true essence of the ingredients to shine through. Our love for locally sourced produce and wild herbs adds a distinctive touch to our meals. Overall, the North Eastern cuisine offers a refreshing departure from the more commonly known Indian culinary styles, showcasing a beautiful blend of simplicity, unique flavours, and a deep-rooted appreciation for the bounties of our land.

Can you tell us about the significance of Wazwan, in Kashmiri cuisine? What are some key dishes typically included in a Wazwan?
Vanika: Certainly! Wazwan holds immense significance in Kashmiri cuisine, and it is more than just a meal; it is a symbol of our culture, hospitality, and culinary excellence. Wazwan is a grand feast comprising a multi-course meal and it is often served during special occasions and celebrations. The preparation of Wazwan is an art that requires skill and meticulous attention to detail. Some key dishes that are typically included in a Wazwan are Aab Gosht, a lamb-based dish prepared with tender meat cooked in a flavorful gravy; Rista, meatballs made from finely ground mutton, cooked in a rich and velvety red chilli gravy; Tabak Maaz, made from succulent rib chops of lamb; Rogan Josh, yet another flavourful, aromatic and iconic red curry lamb dish; Gushtaba, which are essentially large meatballs made from minced mutton and cooked in a creamy yogurt-based gravy, usually the last and most special dish served in a Wazwan.
These are just a few examples a Wazwan consists of. Each dish brings its own unique flavour profile and the combination of these dishes creates a harmonious and unforgettable culinary experience, truly representing the heart and soul of Kashmiri cuisine.

Aayushi Vichare

Aayushi Vichare

Aayushi is that friend who won’t let you take a bite without capturing it. For her, the easiest but still thoughtful way of making someone feel special is by cooking or getting them their favourite food. Currently, she’s on an expedition to integrate all her favourites: food, social media and marketing, so that you don't miss the hottest spot in town and you know where to eat those crispy and juicy chicken wings.

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