In Kashmir, beating cold and patriarchy with a mouthful of winter’s warmth 

In Srinagar’s old city, a new generation of women are trooping to shops selling Harissa, a meat-and-grain delicacy slow-cooked overnight, that once catered exclusively to men

December 02, 2023 09:29 pm | Updated 11:52 pm IST - SRINAGAR

A cook prepares Harissa on a winter morning in Srinagar.

A cook prepares Harissa on a winter morning in Srinagar. | Photo Credit: Nissar Ahmad

Leaving home at the crack of dawn in sub-zero temperatures to eat Harissa — a meat delicacy cooked overnight and served only for breakfast — has been the preserve of men for centuries. This winter, women in Srinagar are stepping out, to sit cross-legged on the carpeted floor of the Harissa-wan, parlours with a raised cooking space that seat 10-15 people.

Rehana Kausar, who works at the Directorate of Health Services, Kashmir, who with eight other women visited a Harissa shop in Srinagar’s old city this season for the first time, said, “Initially, we were uncomfortable, but nobody passed a snide comment, or stared at us, or made us feel uncomfortable in any way. We loved it.” The women are part of the Kashmir Women’s Collective, a group at the forefront of pushing progressive thought in the State.

“We see more and more women coming to have Harissa served at the shop,” said Iftikhar Ahmad, a Harissa seller from Rajouri Kadal, in one of Srinagar’s bylanes. “We never thought women would come and sit next to male customers. It was heart-warming. Times have changed, and we plan to create separate spaces where women may feel more comfortable,” he said.

People leave their homes between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m., because most Harissa shops run out of the delicacy by 8.30 a.m.

Sold in winter in Kashmir, Harissa is a mush of pounded meat and rice or flour with local spices, slow-cooked overnight in a copper pot buried in the earth, with a chamber for firewood below. Sales peak during the harshest 40-day spell, locally called chilia kalan, which begins on December 20. It is served hot from the pot, called maath in Kashmiri.

Earlier, men would bring home the delicacy. “Harissa tastes better in the shop — the vibe is different there,” says Nida Shah, a college student, who goes in a group with her friends.

“Watching the tadka (oil poured on top and set aflame) is a treat,” Dr. Kausar said. “The Harissa math (a type of roti made in the morning) and the camaraderie is not the same at home,” she added. It was not easy to overcome the mental block though. “I kept thinking, ‘What if my dad sees me here?’” she added.

Believed to have travelled from Central Asia to Kashmir through the Silk Route, the high-protein Harissa beats the winter blues. Harissa is a dish of specialists, because there’s an art to making it, said Z.G. Muhammad, author of Srinagar: My City My Dream.

The most tedious process starts pre-dawn, around 4.30 a.m., when the Harissa makers separate the bones from the cooked meat, to allow it to grow into a consistent paste. “It’s garnished with chopped kebabs and a small quantity of meat meethi (sheep intestine, usually served in wazwan, the multi-course celebratory meal of the Kashmiris),” Mr. Ahmad said.

“When we observe a place or activity traditionally reserved for men, it’s our responsibility to challenge and break the stereotype,” said Mantasha Binti Rashid, a Kashmir Administrative Service (KAS) officer, who hopes to see many more spaces opened up for women. “Spaces are not intrinsically masculine or feminine. If we can create spaces, we can also recreate them,” she said.

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