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Wah kahwa!

Many exotic spices and vegetables, some of foreign origin, go into the making of the traditional Kashmiri meal of several courses. What's more, it is cooked on wood fire to give the food an authentic flavour. But if even the thought of such labour makes you sweat, head for the Kashmiri food festival at the Taj West End.

Kashmir's waazwan: more flavour to the City's food culture

THE WAAZAS are here. Can the waazwan be far behind? The ongoing Kashmiri food festival at The Poolside Barbecue, Taj West End, inspired me to find out more about Kashmir, which, sadly, is in the news for all the wrong reasons now.

"Waazwan is Kashmir's most formal meal: a ritual serving before the guest of all the food there is in the house," reads the Kashmir tourism promotion literature. "This taste of hospitality must, in turn, be fully appreciated by the guest, for the waazwan is not a simple meal but a ceremony. Hours of cooking and days of planning go into the making and serving of a waazwan. Normally restricted to occasions of celebration at homes, the waazwan experience includes table settings for groups of four on the floor where choice dish after dish is served, each aromatic with herbs and the fresh produce of the region."

My Army Major friend, who is one of those guarding the border in Kashmir, had more to add by way of information. "First the tash-t-nari is passed around, and diners wash their hands from warm water in a samovar. Choice delicacies such as methi and tabakmaaz, roganjosh and rista, and a variety of kababs and vegetable preparations are served. Saffron flavoured pilauf is a popular delicacy. The meal concludes with the gushtaba, an exclusive dish that is never refused, phirni for dessert and a cup of kahwa, the green tea flavoured with saffron, cardamom, and almonds, and the waazwan is over."

Over a hot cup of kahwa in the hotel's Gardenia restaurant, West End's Executive Chef, Sandeep Kachroo, spoke about a subject close to his heart — Kashmiri cuisine. "For long, the rest of the country has been lead to believe that navratna kurma and Kashmiri pulav are all that a Kashmiri eats. These dishes, as they are made in most restaurants, would be unrecognisable by any Kashmiri!" Our talk is interrupted by a tall man in a hurry. I am told he is Ghulam Ahmed Nowsheri, the waaza brought down from Srinagar, who has fed the likes of Maharaja Hari Singh. My host takes the opportunity to tell him that someone has forgotten to put almonds in our kahwa. A rapid exchange of words in Kashmiri, and the great waaza bows out. He has to finish all the dishes on wood fire to give the food an authentic flavour!

You don't put walnuts in the kahwa? I ask. "No, but we do make walnut chutney, or doone chuten," says the native Kashmiri Pandit. "Mash the green pulp of the walnuts, add hung curds, and spice it up." The dinner buffet Kashmiri fest includes other delectable and unheard of chutneys too.

In fact, the team has come up with 22 non-vegetarian dishes and nearly a 100 vegetarian dishes. Each day will feature a different set of dishes.

The Kashmiri Pandits inherited the knowledge of medicinal values and aromatic qualities of different spices and condiments from ancient Sanskrit texts. A class of traders called Buhuer sprang up in due course to deal especially in spices and medicinal herbs, roots, seeds and minerals — hing or asafoetida is the one used most generously in Pandit cuisine. Saffron, lotus stem, ginger powder, fennel, turmeric, and mavval or seeds of the cockscomb are the often-used ingredients. Traditionally, Pandit cuisine is devoid of onions, shallots, and garlic. But Kashmiri Pandits do eat meat. "We eat only sheep meat and fish, because these are considered `clean' meat — sheep only eat green leaves and fish eat seaweed or smaller fish that feed on seaweed," explains Chef Kachroo. The Muslim cuisine is rich in onion, garlic, and the mild-mannered but fiery-looking Kashmiri mirch.

As an important station in the ancient Silk Route, Kashmir attracted a great deal of traders who brought in spices from all over the world. The cuisine, therefore, displays great variety and is flavoured not just by saffron but a lot of other exotic ingredients as well. Fresh vegetables such as kohlrabi, ubuj or turnip, and haak or spinach of various kinds find their place in the cuisine.

For those who have not had the pleasure of eating modur pulav at a Kashmiri wedding, here is an opportunity in the City. For an all-inclusive price of Rs. 700, Taj West End offers the Kashmiri dinner buffet till March 23.

Try the khameeri roti, Kashmiri paratha, bakirkhani with dum aloo, khatta baingan or kakkur dhaniwal korma. Dig into khubani ka pulav, sheek kababs and don't forget to complete the meal with sheer chai, a slightly salty pink tea with a dash of soda... burrp, sorry!


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