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Kashmir Cuisine (Wazwan)

Wazwan :: The pride of Kashmiri cuisine is Wazwan – the fantastic 36 – course wedding banquet, now also served on special occasions. A true gastronomic journey of epical proportion it showcases the finesse of saffaron, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom. Kashmiri chilli, curds etal woven into rista (meatballs), seekh kababs, tabak maz (fired rib cuts), rogan josh (mutton curry with generous helpings of red kashmiri chillies), chaman (fresh cottage cheese) and dam allu (potato). Rice and bread (sheermaal and baquerkhani, tsochvoru, tsot, kulcha) and bakery items play an important role in everyday meals as do mutton and fish, Spinach and lotus root. The delectably flavoured Khawa (green tea) is drink through the day.
In the olden times, almost every Kashmiri home in the plains had a professional Kashmiri cook in residence, who were the masters of their art. Pure ghee and mustard oil was used freely and every mealtime was an event in itself. Gradually and with time, the ladies of the household learnt the art under the specialized training of these culinary masters and became as proficient as their ‘gurus’. As the living costs increased with time, the era of the super cooks came to an end. However, their art has not all lost.

One can frequently taste the delicacies mastered by the chefs at Kashmiri weddings. Kashmiri cuisine that evolved in the Valley several centuries ago acquired some of the scrumptious elements of the Mughal art of cooking and yet has retained a distinct personality of its own. There were two great schools of culinary craftsmanship in Kashmir, namely those of Kashmiri Pandits and Kashmiri Muslims. The basic difference between the two schools was that the abundant use of heeng (asafetida) and curd among the Hindus and the open-handed use of onions and garlics among the Muslims.

Hindu Brahmins or Kashmiri Pandits are not averse to eating meat and are rather voracious meat eaters. However, they prefer goat and that too a young one. The meat is generally chosen from the legs, neck, breast, ribs and shoulders and cut into large pieces. No vegetarian or non-vegetarian dish, except certain kababs, is cooked without curd. The Kashmiris often cook their food by heating it on two sides, from both top and bottom for that distinctive taste. The charcoal fire was their solution in the earlier days but oven serves as a good substitute these days.

Originally, Kashmiri Pandits avoided onions and garlics but now many of them have acquired a taste for them and include them in certain recipes as optional. Though the basic principles of cooking are largely similar in almost all homes, certain Pandit families have adopted minor changes in both ingredients and methods. The most important of the retained traits are the liberal use of aromatic spices and the avoidance of onion and garlic in some homes. Kabargah, Kofta, Dum Alu, Methi Chaman and Firni are some of the delicacies of the region known for their sheer flavor and richness.

Kashmiri Muslims offer another gold mine of gourmet though except for the few restaurants and regional stalls in the country, this art is near extinction. Largely confined to Kashmiri homes in and out of the Valley, the professional cooks and masters of the art are known as ‘wazas’. These people claim to be the descendants of the master chefs who migrated from Samarkand and parts of Central Asia at the beginning of the fifteenth century and were a vital part of the entourage that came to Kashmir during the reign of Timur (or Tamarlane).

In the earlier days, the traditional Kashmiri Muslim banquet known as Wazwan, a feast fit for kings, which was perhaps the most unique and elaborate royal spread of meat and delicacies compared to the other parts of India. Comprising of thirty-six courses, fifteen to thirty dishes of Wazwan are varieties of meat. Many of the delicacies are cooked through the entire night under the expert supervision of a Vasta Waza or head chef, assisted by an entourage of wazas under him. Kashmir’s most formal meal, Wazwan is not only a ritual but also a ceremony. Traditionally, no spoons, forks or knives are used for eating food. Eaten with fingers, getting invited to a Wazwan is a rare luxury that one can enjoy these days.

Wazwan :: Rich and redolent with the flavour of the spices used – cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, saffron, etc. Kashmiri food can be the simple meal of a family, or a 36-course wedding banquet called Wazawan. The staple diet of every Kashmiri is rice, the most preferred being the dense, slightly sticky grained Kashmir variety, which is prized in the Valley.
Mutton, chicken or fish are of prime importance in Kashmiri meal and everyday cooking often combines vegetable and meat in the same dish. Mutton and turnips, chicken and spinach, fish and lotus root are also very popular combinations. Pure vegetarian dishes include dum-aloo – roasted potatoes in curd-based gravy, and chaman- fried paneer (cottage cheese), in a thick sauce. Non-vegetarian dishes are considered in Kashmir to be a sign of lavish hospitality and at a Wazwan or banquet, not more than one or two vegetarian dishes are served. Sweets do not play an important role in Kashmiri cuisine. Instead Kahva or green tea is used to wash down a meal.

The waza (cooks) preparing Wazawan
The WAZA (Cook) preparing Wazawan
Wazawan is usually served at weddings and parties. The most commonly served items are rista (meat balls) made of finely pounded mutton and cooked in a gravy; seekh kababs, tabak maz, or flat pieces of meat cut from the ribs and fried till they acquire a crisp crackling texture, roganjosh, which owes its rich red colour to the generous use of Kashmiri chillies. Yakhni, a cream coloured preparation of delicate flavour, is made with curd as a base. Gushtaba, which is the last item to be served in a traditional wazawan, are meatballs moulded from pounded mutton like large-sized Rista but cooked in thick gravy of fresh curd base. Dam-Aaloo and chaman are the commonly served vegetarian dishes – to serve more than this would indicate an unseemly tendency on the part of the host to economize!
Several restaurants in Srinagar serve Kashmiri wazawan on their menus. Mughal Durabar, Ahdoos and Grand, on the Residency Road, offer authentic wazawan. Similarly, Broadway Hotel on Maulana Azad Road arranges wazawan prepared by professionals.