Until a few years ago, one could spot garlands of vegetables hanging on the front walls of houses across Kashmir. These were neither decorative nor was it a practice borne out of superstition. They were a necessity to survive the harsh winters.
In the Valley’s bone-deep cold, little food can be grown and a food shortage would follow once heavy snowfall would inundate the Srinagar-Jammu highway, the main supply line linking the Valley to the rest of India. “Back then the national highway would be closed for months and the markets would run out,” said Masooda Masoodi, a retired teacher.
Most people could not afford to eat meat often, Masoodi said, so hokh syun – meaning, dried food – was the only option to tide over the disruption in the supply of essential commodities.
In summer and autumn, all kinds of vegetables, and fish, would be sliced and threaded in long garlands to hang on the walls or laid out to dry in the sun. It was an annual practice for rich and poor alike – anyone who did not wish to starve during the winter.
No longer a necessity
Over the years, though, the Srinagar-Jammu highway has become much more reliable, usually cleared within two to three days even after a heavy spell of snowfall. As a result, the supply of fresh vegetables and packaged food is never disrupted for long – and the popularity of dried food has waned.
Few people now dry vegetables for winter, particularly in Srinagar and other urban areas. Most shops selling dried food have either closed down or switched to more profitable trade.
In the Jamia Masjid Market of Old Srinagar, a dozen shops selling dried vegetables have adopted other businesses over the last decade, leaving only two to continue the trade. “I too want to move to a different business,” said Masroor Ahmad, 28, whose family has been selling dried food since 1974. “But my father is not willing to start something new. He thinks it will be difficult to set up a new trade. And we know this one.”
Ahmad now sources his merchandise from villages, mostly in Budgam and Pulwama districts. But each year, he says, as the profits of merchants like him shrink, the rural dried food cottage industry takes a hit.
“We make Rs 2,000 a day after hard work and dirtying our clothes while they [shops selling factory manufactured commodities] make Rs 50,000 a day simply by wiping the dust off boxes,” he lamented. “Naturally, we will have to shift someday. For now I am only doing this because of my father.”
Hokh syun is cooked with either other sun-dried vegetables or lamb, chicken, eggs, pulses. Kashmir’s favourite dried vegetables include turnip, bottle gourd and tomato.
Turnips are as popular dried as they are fresh. They are peeled, sliced into thick pieces, tied in a string like a garland and hung to dry in the sun. A kilogram of turnip sells for Rs 200 in the market, and Rs 100 if dried along with its leaves. The dried turnips are boiled for a few minutes and, after the water is drained, fried and stewed with lamb, chicken, cottage cheese or pulses. Additionally, the water turnips are boiled in is a household remedy to cure chilblains, common during winter.
Brinjal, the thin, long variety, needs to be preserved in a particular way. Partially sliced along their length twice so that the four slices are held together at the top, it is placed on straight ropes and left to dry. Dried brinjal is soaked in hot water before being fried and cooked, commonly with moong dal.
The tomato is another common dry vegetable, used essentially for flavour and colour in Kashmiri cuisine. Fresh tomatoes are sliced and spread out on sheets in the sun. They sell for about Rs 100 per kilogram. Many people also grind the dried tomatoes into a powder, which is then used to make curry.
But the most popular of hokh syun is the bottle gourd. Peeled and cut into round slices or long strips and dried, al’e hach, as it is called in Kashmiri, is commonly cooked with onion and meat or fava beans. Al’e hach is also cooked with dried tomato or dried brinjal or both together. Dried bottle gourd goes for about Rs 150 a kilogram.
Hokh syun also includes a few varieties of greens such as fenugreek leaves, dandelion, spinach and collard greens. These are either stewed on their own or cooked with lamb and chicken.
Hoch handh, or dried dandelion greens, is commonly boiled and ground to a pasty texture. It is stewed on its own or cooked with fish. Handh is believed to be good for new mothers and is often prepared in homes after deliveries. Masooda said handh was given to new mothers because of its high iron content. Handh, she said, is also believed to improve bowel movement and blood volume. “Elders would say it is a medicine,” she said. “But not just for new mothers. It is said handh is medicine for joint pain, women’s problems, back pain.”
Another winter delicacy is hokh gaad, or dried fish. Small, lean fish are gutted and cleaned and hung from strings to dry. Once dry, they are soaked in hot water to remove the skin, fried and cooked whole with spices and dried tomatoes. The dish is a remedy for the common cold. In the market, a kilogram sells for around Rs 400, depending on the size of the fish.
Larger, thicker fish called phari are preserved differently. Ungutted fish are laid out on the ground on grass, smoked by grass that is set alight, and then left to dry in the sun. The charred black skin is scraped off before the fish is cooked with tomatoes, radishes and greens.
Less commonly, quince and apple are also dried and preserved for winter. The large, slightly sour Maharaji apple is sliced and dried and usually cooked on its own. Some combine it with radish. Dried quince is commonly cooked with meat, without any chilli.
Masooda remembers the bustle around drying food for winters in her childhood. Today, she said, people have neither the time nor the will to keep up the tradition. “Everything is available in the market now,” she said. “Why would anyone spend so much time and energy on this?”