When floods ravaged Kashmir in 2014, taking lives and destroying property, one overlooked consequence was the loss of nadru, or lotus stem, which is a predominant ingredient in Kashmiri kitchens. At the start of 2018, though, the vegetable is back thanks to local farmers, who have worked hard to revive it in the Dal, Nigeen, Manasbal and Achar – Srinagar’s major lakes – using ingenious ideas over the past three years.
The hard, coarse root vegetable, which varies in colour from white to light brown, is not exclusive to Kashmiri cuisine – it is popular as bhein in Punjab and kamal kakdi in the Sindhi community – but it is particularly significant to Kashmiris. “Asking a Kashmiri about nadru is like asking a Briton about shepherd’s pie [or] a North Indian about dal,” said Marryam Reshii, a food critic who has written extensively about Kashmiri food and culture. “It is such an automatic part of the Kashmiri kitchens. Although it [Kashmiri cuisine] is one that celebrates meat, nadru is somehow put on equal measure.”
Rise and fall
According to popular folklore, nadru gained popularity in Kashmir around the 15th century when its ruler, Badshah Ghiyas-ud-Din Zain-ul-Abidin, encountered the lotus plant during a shikara ride on the Gul Sar, now known as the Gill Sar, a lake on the outskirts of Srinagar. Gul means flower or rose in Persian, and so struck was the ruler with the lotus flowers that he decided to introduce them in all the lakes in the region.
But it was not just the flower’s beauty that captivated the badshah. His boatmen had harvested some nadru and added it to the evening meal, drawing unprecedented attention to the root of this popular flower. Soon, Kashmiris were frying, steaming and boiling nadru, making it one of the most ubiquitous vegetables in the region’s cuisine.
Nadru has an earthy, fibrous flavour that is quite unlike any other vegetable. It is cooked in many ways in the region: boiled with green beans to make a dal, fried as nader monje (a popular fritter-like street food), and is used to make nader yakhni, with the vegetable replacing lamb in this traditional yoghurt-and-cumin based dish. The yakhni is cooked as a special meal on Nowruz, or the Iranian New Year, a ritual introduced in the region many centuries ago by Shia Muslim immigrants.
The floods of September 2014 wreaked widespread destruction in Kashmir – nearly 277 people in India and around 280 people in Pakistan died. Srinagar was severely affected – there were more than 200 casualties and entire buildings and ecosystems were destroyed. Nearly 80% of nadru plants disappeared in just one month.
“For a year or even longer, there was no trace of the lotus stem, which was the main source of my income and livelihood,” said Gulam Azad, a nadru farmer who lives on Dal Lake. “So for more than a year, we kept looking.” By 2016 though, the nadru was yet to be spotted. It was then the farmers decided to take matters into their own hands.
They started taking lotus seeds and saplings from Nigeen Lake, which was spared by the floods, and replanted them around the region. This time-consuming task finally bore fruit in October 2017 when nadru made a comeback in the markets of Srinagar. Today, nadru is found in abundance not only in the Nigeen, Anchaar and Dal, but also in smaller settlements with water where floating gardens are planted by homes and families to grow vegetables.
Azad explains that before the floods the nadru that was harvested was white and shining, testament to its freshness and quality. However, post the floods, the nadru harvested is brownish and wood-like. “But at least it’s back in Kashmir” he said. “[While] we missed selling it, [we missed] eating it more.”
“In the winters we would eat nadru and rajma,” said Shafi Khankashi, a young boat-owner who lives on the Dal. “A Kashmiri kitchen without nadru is unimaginable.”
Alok Ganju, a Kashmiri Pandit who grew up in Srinagar but now lives in Bengaluru, says he never forgets to buy nadru when he visits the Valley. “You can get it in Kashmiri markets around [Bengaluru] but not the kind that you get in Kashmir,” he said. “I cut it diagonally, and dry it in the sun so that it gets crisp and sour. It’s perfect with a drink, or chai, or just as a snack. And this way, it stays for months.”
Threat of pollution
Nadru is just one of the many lake vegetables that are grown in Kashmir – others include water chestnuts, water lilies and varieties of spinach. However, the demarcated spaces where these vegetables are grown as well as the floating gardens are being threatened by rising levels of pollution. There are also legal issues concerning encroachment. The state government has begun to demarcate land under its ownership, which has led to many farmers leaving, as the land they have been using for decades though not legally theirs – is being taken away. Episodes like the 2014 floods and the drought in 2017 have resulted in erratic water levels. These together with the increase in tourism that has led to the overcrowding of the Dal have all adversely impacted the vegetables that are grown there.
“The Dal is filled with plastic, with pollution from the city, no-one treats it as sacred anymore, so how will anything grow,” bemoaned Azad. “It is the responsibility of the people and the government, but no-one is taking it. Water vegetables provide fresh flavours to Kashmiri [cuisine] that are unusual to other parts of the subcontinent. They are important to our culture, because many communities, especially the older ones, live on lakes.”
Local ingredients continue to play a paramount role in Kashmiri cuisine, according to Khalid Ahmed, a farmer on Nigeen lake. It’s little wonder then that farmers and suppliers are awaiting the harvest season in October, where along with turnips, spinach and mint, the nadru will also hopefully appear in the markets on the lakes.
“On fasting days you cannot eat meat, both in Pandit and Muslim families,” explained Reshii. “On such days, nadru’s porous, chewy, substantial texture gives it [the] versatility to be used in Kashmiri recipes that depend on meat, like yakhni, or nadru kebabs, in which it is minced in place of mutton or beef. It becomes a vegetable in that case that is as good as meat.
“It is not just food – like many things in Kashmir, nadru is also a symbol, of culture, of tradition, of the region,” said Reshii. “And more than ever, that is important today.”