As the morning temperatures in Kashmir dip to sub-zero, there are few signs of life on the streets. Most days begin late as the bone chilling cold makes it hard to leave the warmth of your bed or home – unless of course, the purpose of venturing out is to grab a plate of the popular winter delicacy, harissa.

In the eerie stillness of downtown Srinagar, the neighbourhood of Aali Kadal is home to an eatery that exclusively serves harissa ­– a scrumptious dish of lamb, cooked in mild spices and traditionally eaten for breakfast – epitomising Kashmir’s love for meaty dishes.

Flocked by the young and old, the dimly lit eatery resembles a simple Kashmiri kitchen, with a traditional table cloth spread on the furnished floor of the dining space. The eatery is warmed by logs of wood, burnt underneath a marble topped counter, encased with earthen pots in which the harissa is cooked and served. The irresistible aroma combined with the warmth and dim lights, create a blissful, sleepy cocoon.

Every winter, harissa is the most sought-after delicacy in Kashmir. Moazam Ali, a university student, said that as soon as he feels the first chill in the air, the thought of the aroma-filled, homely eateries make him crave harissa.

“I love the hot boiling oil they add to the harissa plates.” he said. “The only problem is waking up early. You can get harissa up until 9 or 9.30, but by then it feels like the leftovers of a main course.”

At the eatery, business hours begin before the first light of dawn and the kitchen closes within the span of a few hours. Aijaz Ahmad Bhat, who runs the eatery along with his father Bashir Ahmad Bhat, said that serving time began at about 5 am, and the entire batch of meat – around 40 kilos – was usually sold out long before noon.

“Normally there is no space to even stand inside the eatery. Customers wait outside, in the cold.” he said. “It is by far the most popular winter dish.”

Aijaz Ahmad Bhat serves harissa on plates as diners look on. Photo: Rayan Naqash

Preparing the lamb

The process of making the harissa is laborious, almost an art in itself. Preparations for a batch of harissa begin at noon, a day before the serving, and continue till late evening. Forty kilos of lamb are boiled in an earthen pot, and left to simmer overnight.

Bhat said harissa can only be made in traditional kitchens.

“It can’t be made in machines, it has to be handmade.” he said. “Making harissa is a 24-hour job.” Bhat’s workstation includes 5 earthen pots, one each for cooking harissa, kababs, methi maaz, and two for boiling water.

Sitting beside the counter, Bashir Ahmad prepared the lamb for cooking, by removing the fat and making cuts in the flesh.

“All of the lamb is then put into the pot to boil, until the bones separate,” Ahmad said. “Then we get up by around 3 am in the morning, remove the bones and pound the meat till it becomes paste-like. Seven mild spices are added too.”

Chunks of lamb ready to be boiled. Photo: Rayan Naqash

A plate of harissa at Bhat’s eatery is garnished with small pieces of kabab, methi maaz, and topped over with boiling mustard oil. A kilo of harissa costs Rs 760, while a plate consisting of 250 gms of harissa and three Kashmiri flat breads cost Rs 200.

Making harissa requires not only labour, but also skill.

“People can try learning the method for years and never get it right,” Aijaz said. “It’s in our blood. I don’t do it for the money, I do it for the tradition.”

The Bhats are the perhaps the oldest harissa chefs in Kashmir and serve customers only during a fixed period, which begins on September 20 and ends on April 10. In the summer, they work in their orchards.

Boiling mustard oil is poured over the harissa. Photo: Rayan Naqash

A moveable feast

Like many other aspects of Kashmiri culture, the harissa, too, has its roots outside Kashmir. Gulshan Majeed, who retired as director of the Centre of Central Asian Studies at the Kashmir University, said that while no one can say for certain where harissa first came from, Kashmir’s historical links with Central Asian countries might have some clues.

“Harissa is also available in Central Asia, with the same name and a similar style of preparation,” he said, pointing out that there are no ancient records of such a dish being prepared in the Valley. “Either harissa is a universal dish, or it came to Kashmir from Central Asia, along with religious, political, and trade links.”

Today, harissa is an integral part of Kashmiri society. Majeed said that harissa was popular among the Dogras as well.

“The Dogras are considered to be vegetarians but they also relish harissa,” he said. “In older times, not everyone could not afford to eat it.

Vessels of harissa are often exchanged as gifts between the families of brides and grooms, during wedding season. In the past, Majeed said, affluent Kashmiris would hold harissa saal (feasts) after the first snowfall.

The growing demand for junk food in Kashmir does not appear to have affected the sale of harissa at all. Outside the traditional hub of downtown Srinagar, several restaurants now serve harissa, Majeed said.

However, the harissa at these eateries has lost the patronage of the affluent classes.

“It was popularised due to commercialisation, which diluted its quality, to make it affordable.” he said. “Today, people have harissa only for the sake of eating it, there are few who relish its taste.”

Aijaz and Bashir Ahmad Bhat are not worried worried about the quality or demand of the harissa they serve.

“The preparation here is the same as it was during and before my great grandfathers used to make harissa.” Aijaz Bhat said. “People from all over Srinagar come here because they can feel the difference in the taste.”