Kashmiris love their vegetables equally. Photo: Dreamstime
If there is one dish that Tawheed Rehman misses after moving out of Srinagar, it is the fish curry his mother prepared with nadur or lotus stem. The fish, mostly carp, would be bought from the bridges over the Jhelum River. Cooked with radish and leafy vegetables, Gaad-Nadur is not a dish you'll find at any restaurant in Kashmir. The garam masala and generous amount of Kashmiri chilli powder render a unique, rich flavour to the homely recipe, the Hyderabad-based teacher tells us.
Most of us are not very familiar with the food cooked in Kashmiri homes. However, chefs from the valley are on a mission to put the cuisine on the culinary map of the country. Like many other regional cuisines, cinnamon, cardamom and clove add warmth and comfort to Kashmiri food. But what makes it unique? Chef Manav Koul, executive chef at Sofitel Mumbai BKC says, “Generous use of ghee, fragrant spices like saffron and fennel make the cuisine stand out. Also, the use of the famous Kashmiri red chillies, which are less pungent than the regular ones.”
The wonder of Kashmiri food
If you think that the secret behind those rich gravies lies in the use of onions, garlic or tomatoes, you will be surprised to know that Kashmiris do not use them as much. “The red colour of course comes from the special Kashmiri chillies, while the yellow and white curries derive their tones from milk, yoghurt and turmeric,” says Sunil Mattoo, owner of Kong Poush, a Mumbai-based Kashmiri food catering service. “What also makes them delicious is the use of not-so popular ingredients such as fennel (saunf) and dry ginger powder (sonth), and mustard oil,” he adds.
While desserts are not that talked about in this part of the country, a meal is often ended by drinking flavoured teas instead. It is also an integral part of Kashmiri life, says Chef Koul. “Sweets are not that well known and people normally end their meals either with Cahva – Kashmiri green tea, or Sheer Chai – a pink, salted tea served in traditional metallic cups called khos.”
Kashmiri Muslim food Vs Pandit food
The difference between Kashmiri Pandit food and the Wazwan or Muslim cuisine is simple. While Hindus or Pandits use heeng (asafoetida) and curd to make their dishes creamy, Muslims prefer onions and garlic to cook their recipes. Interestingly, “Kashmiri Muslims prefer goat, especially young, while Kashmiri Pandits choose lamb,” Chef Koul says.
Cooking with vegetables
To the rest of the world, Kashmiri food may start and end with meat. But a Kashmiri meal is also about the variety of leafy vegetables grown in the valley. Like the Gogji Razmah, which is kidney beans cooked with turnips; Chamman Qaliya or paneer prepared in a mild milk and turmeric gravy; Haak saag or a leafy vegetable usually prepared in Pandit homes; Nadir-Haaq that is lotus stem cooked with spinach or radish, and Tsok Wangun, which is eggplant cooked with tamarind. And then there is guchhi, the wild Himalayan mushroom used to make kebabs, or is simply stir fried with spices. Considered exotic, it grows in the coniferous forests typically during the rains.
The beauty of Kashmiri vegetables is that when cooked with meat or fish, they produce standout dishes. Like haak ti maaz or mutton prepared with lamb and greens. Locals say that rich or poor, if you manage haak and rice, you have everything!
Preparing Kashmiri food at home
Replicating restaurant-style Roganjosh at home is not a task, says Chef Manav Koul. His tip is “use Kashmiri mirch or degi mirch powder instead of the ordinary variety. These give the required red colour without making the food too hot.”
Eating in Srinagar
For a tourist looking for local food in Srinagar, some of the restaurants recommended by Sunil Mattoo are Ahdoos on Residential Road, Moghul Darbar on Sherwani Road and Bismillah on Jawahar Road. Locals vouch for the harissa, a traditional favourite sold during breakfast time in the downtown area, and is prepared using lamb shanks with mushy rice and spices. Non-vegetarians should not miss out on the barbecue along the Dal Lake, the best time for which is post sunset.