Kashmiri Pandits celebrate the birthday of Sharika Devi, the Mother Goddess of Kashmir on the ninth day of the month of Ashad in the Hindu calendar (June-July in the Gregorian calendar). On this day, throngs of devotees carry offerings to propitiate the Devi in her sanctum on the summit of a hillock in Srinagar named Hari Parbat, or peak of God. One of the offerings served to the Goddess is the traditional Pandit dish of tahar (turmeric rice) mixed with tcharvun (cooked liver).
As a child, I remember accompanying my parents and grandparents on regular trips to Hari Parbat, accompanied by friends and extended family members.
Kashmiri Hindus are traditionally non-vegetarian and prepare fish and mutton dishes on their holiest days like Herath or Maha Shivaratri, the great night of Shiva. The food is offered to the deities and then consumed by the family members after Puja. On the day after Herath, known as Salaam, Pandits would offer bowls of walnuts soaked in water to their Muslim neighbors.
Feast for the senses
Mutton has always been a staple of the Pandit diet. It is generally served with rice and is prepared in a variety of ways. Some common dishes are matschagand, (minced lamb kebabs cooked in red gravy), yakhni (lamb in yoghurt based gravy flavored with maval flowers, cardamom, onion paste, dry mint leaves and fennel leaves) and goat liver and kidney (bakot, tscharvan) sautéed with red chilies or served with gravy. Muji gaad is fish, usually rohu or trout, prepared with radish or lotus stem, and generally served on religious occasions or gatherings.
Mutton dishes are marinated in curd or saffron milk for extended periods to keep them warm when the temperature dips. Dishes are cooked slow and simmered in spices and gravy for several hours at a time. Aniseed, ginger, asafoetida, fenugreek, chillies are ground into a special masala called ver which gives Kashmiri food its strong, sensual flavor along with some of the finest saffron cultivated anywhere in the world.
When done right, our cuisine is a feast for all the senses, and not just the palate.
With the entry of Timur and his hordes in the 15th century from modern day Uzbekistan into north India, the local cuisine started being increasingly influenced by culinary trends from Central Asia, Iran and Afghanistan. According to some accounts, the traditional Muslim cuisine of Kashmir, Wazawan was introduced into Kashmir by a large retinue of royal cooks accompanying Timur’s army. It comprises of 36 dishes usually served at weddings, including the deep fried lamb ribs called tabak maaz and gushtaba, meatballs cooked in sour cream gravy.
The renowned rogan josh, Kashmiri lamb curry, is common to both Pandit and Muslim cuisine, though Pandits do not use onions or garlic in their dishes. Several vegetarian items are popular in both communities including monje (kohlrabi), nadru (lotus stem) and gogji (turnip). And how can any Kashmiri meal, Hindu or Muslim, be complete without haak, the lush collard greens of the valley, cooked with mustard oil and asafoetida or heeng, derived from the resin of giant fennel plants that grew wild in Iran and Afghanistan.
This pungent spice, a signature ingredient of Kashmiri cuisine, was brought to India by Mughals in the sixteenth century and is known to be an effective digestive aid. Herbalists across South and Central Asia also use it in the treatment of hysteria, some nervous conditions, bronchitis, asthma and whooping cough.
My maternal grandmother had a reputation for her formidable culinary skills. Her cooking was in great demand when friends and relatives came together for their periodic gatherings. In the old days the men of the clan accompanied by their wives, would come over to quaff whiskey and debate world politics accompanied by generous portions of my grandmother’s cooking, while the women discussed the shenanigans and scandals lighting up the grapevine.
Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed, the erstwhile Prime Minister of Kashmir from 1953 to 1963, and his brother Majid were close friends of my maternal grandfather, Amarnath Dhar. They liked my grandmother’s cooking so much that a separate kitchen staffed with attendants was set up where she could work her magic during family visits.
At that point in time my grandfather was in the process of building the very first hydroelectric project in Kashmir at Ganderbal, in collaboration with a Hungarian company, and often shuttled between Bombay, Srinagar and Europe for work.
Members of the Bakshi clan regularly attended the annual celebrations at Kheer Bhawani, the iconic temple constructed over a spring in the village of Tula Mula, a few miles outside of Srinagar. It was not uncommon for Muslims to pray at Hindu sites and vice versa. Some of the most venerated figures in Kashmiri lore like Lal Ded and Nund Rishi practiced and taught a syncretic and non-sectarian brand of spirituality, a seamless blend of the three great traditions, Buddhism, Shaivism and Sufism, which flourished in the valley.
My grandfather passed away a few years ago. On his birthday this year, I opened a prized bottle of Laphroaig to honour his memory, and to drink to Kashmiriyat – the effortless syncretism that his generation represented, perhaps forever relegated to the museum of memories and sepia toned picture albums.
A Kashmiri acquaintance who runs a catering business delivered freshly prepared rogan josh, haak, monje and nadru-yakhni to my home in California that afternoon. I had invited a motley group of old friends and colleagues for the occasion. The food was set upon the table and we all dug in without much further ado. There was a hushed silence around the room and not a word was spoken till every last morsel had been ingested. It almost felt like a religious experience.
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