Kashmiri cuisine preserves place as 'realm' of unique food culture

By Nusrat Sidiq

SRINAGAR, Jammu and Kashmir (AA) – Last year, when Indian film Director Vivek Agnihotri tried to bring a change in the Kashmiri food by captioning a vegetarian food plate as "Vegetarian Wazwan," locals expressed anger over what they saw as an infringement of their cultural traditions.

The multi-course dish Wazwan, which consists of 36 dishes made up of lamb meat, has been preserved and relished in the region from many decades.

Its name is derived from the Sanskrit word waaja, which means "to cook," with the chef cooking it known locally as the waza.

For World Gastronomy Day on June 18, local Chef Fayaz Ahmad Mir told Anadolu Agency about the exquisite details of the cuisine that he has been mastering for 18 years.

Mir belongs to a clan of chefs who for generations have been practicing the art of cooking Kashmiri Wazwan on festivals and marriage ceremonies.

"Wazwan is our identity, it's not about cooking food, it's about our culture, surroundings and traditions we cherish from many generations," the 48-year-old Mir said.

– Exquisite dishes

By custom, Wazwan is cooked by five to 10 men under the supervision of the head chef, called wasta waza.

It is the wasta wazwa who oversees the preparation and making of the food that is entirely based on lamb meat, with even the vegetarian dishes that come with it containing mutton broth and mutton pieces.

The 36 dishes that make up the mouth-watering feast include small meatballs called Rista, Korma or pieces of meat prepared in mashed red chilies, pieces of rib meat prepared in clear butter known as Tabakmaaz, and Kababs.

The main course ends with what is known as gushtaba, a large meatball dish prepared in curds. The feast is usually served to four people together in a big copper plate called a Traem.

Mir said that naturally, Kashmiris have loved meat, irrespective of what faith they profess.

"My grandfather used to get orders from Kashmiri Pandits (Hindus) to prepare Wazwan for their festivals and other ceremonies. It was a feast for all," Mir recalls.

Today, Mir heads a group of chefs of around 12 men. He oversees all the preparations for cooking the huge feast which is prepared for over 100 people in large copperware over burning firewood.

Preparations to cook the food begin a day before guests arrive but due to the pandemic, they can only serve a limited attendance.

"The last two years have been very distressing. Our work suffered immensely. Lots of orders were discarded and many were postponed but whatever little we're preparing now, things are still moving," Mir said.

– Historical significance

The history of modern Kashmiri cuisine can be traced back to the 15-century invasion of India by the Timurid Empire, which was based in and around modern day Afghanistan and Iran.

It brought around 1,700 skilled workers from the Samarkand region, including cooks, to Kashmir. These cooks settled in the region and their descendants are today "Wazas" — chefs — of Kashmir.

Kashmir Historian Abdul Ahad told Anadolu Agency that there are two vital parts of the region's identity, "one is language and the other is food."

"Kashmiri cuisine is not just food, it's the history of the people associated with it. I say it's an amalgam of foods which has been brought here centuries ago," said Ahad.

Mentioning that Kashmiri food signifies different cultures, he said: "You see the word Korma has of Turkish origin, the word Kabab of Arabic origin and Rogan josh was derived from a Persian word. So, all these foods we prepare here signify different food cultures at one place."

He told Anadolu Agency that this cuisine was irreplaceable by anything because with time, it has gotten more sophisticated.

"In any situation, this food has been cooked here for many years and you won't find it in any other part of the world. The wazwan prepared and relished here is unique because of its ingredients, surroundings and water," Ahad added.