Kashmiri cuisine, “Wazwan”

Kashmir, the land of fruits and nuts is also famous for its well known and flavorsome cuisine, known as ‘Wazwaan’ and consists of mostly non-vegetarian dishes. I share my experience at a Wazwan held to celebrate a wedding in Kashmir.

It was month of September, the Chief chef (vasta waza) arrived along with his team exactly at 6 pm to the place where they were to prepare a wazwan to be served next day. The team brought with them their set of huge cooking pots, bowls and utensils and everything that could be needed for the preparation of the wazwan. During wazwan, the whole night various dishes are prepared on the spot and firewood is used as a source of heat for cooking.

The Chief chef had a final meeting with head of the family, Abajan, regarding the menu and the number of dishes to be served, etc. Amaji, wife of Abajan, had recently had lunch in the neighborhood and she insisted on having some extra dishes as well. “The party should be peerless and no one should get a chance to criticize!” she exclaimed. She wanted the addition of shami kabab (small patty of minced mutton with ground chickpeas, egg and spices), hindi rogan josh (an aromatic lamb dish) and few more dishes to the standard wazwan.

“What will people say if our wazwan is substandard?” whispered Auntie. She strengthened Amaji’s determination, and Abajan continued to listen. I don’t think it will be out of place to mention that the sentence “What will people say?” is one of the most unfortunate sentences in our culture. It seems

most of us live for others, whatever the circumstances.

Abajan scratched his head and finally nodded his head in affirmation. “Go ahead guys, add more dishes, as they say.” The technical issues involved in the addition of these dishes were numerous, for example, meat from legs of lamb, but the meat left over could be used in making other dishes “ the Chief chef explained. It appears that for every kilogram of meat he prepared, the charges would be adjusted accordingly.

It was surely his day!

Dozen of chairs were arranged near site of the wazwan, and many well –wishers, friends, family and neighbors poured in. Beautiful discussions regarding international and national politics started amidst the “ thup, thup, thup “ sound produced by the manual grinding of meat at the wazwan site. The manual grinding of meat and mixing of spices constitute the initial steps in the preparation of Kabab (Prepared by roasting grinded meat mixed with spices on fire), Ristas (minced meat rolled into a small ball) and the great Gostaba, (rounded grinded meat ball prepared in curd velvety textured in white yogurt gravy) the favorite dish of Pt Jawahar Lal Nehru, the first Prime minster of India. The weather was a little windy, with clouds playing hide and seek. Everyone seemed worried lest it should rain. Amaji with her Izbandh posh2 seemed “busy in being busy “ and she was praying “Ya Allah! take care of weather. It will be messy otherwise.” Everyone now suggested changing the current tent into one of waterproof tent (Pandal).

Thanks to mobile technology, Sahabji the tent owner arrived no sooner had received the message.

“Jenab, (sir) it is not an issue at all. We have beautiful waterproof tents, and I assure you even if it rains cats and dogs, your guests won’t be disturbed at all. The charges will be only Rs 54000 extra, after all, you have been our customers for many years. “Abajan seemed to be at the receiving end of this on-going discussion. He again scratched his head and eventually said with a sigh “Please change it. Let us not take a chance “.

The tent was changed. On the Sunday morning the chief chef requested us to please go and get the vegetables. We went to the market in a car. The Sunday market seemed to have further narrowed the narrow lanes of the town, and soon we were trapped in a traffic jam at a crossing. Hawkers were everywhere. There are no traffic lights and no policemen. The rule seemed to be keep to the right or the left; the choice is yours!

There was no option but to wait. “Anil Kapoor, Noor hi Noor Bata hay Bata. a young boy was pulling the ends of chapels demonstrating the strength of his chapel stock. He was advertising at the top of his voice without a care for the state of his vocal cords. What an enthusiastic approach! I was watching the show from our stranded car. However, Spectators like me seemed to be greater in number than real customers in front of him.

Since ages our roads have been like this, and the volume of traffic has increased over time. Widening of the roads needs a mega masterplan and achieving this seems to be like asking for the moon. To tackle this crisis, we either need to adopt the Singaporean philosophy of vehicle sharing, so that number of vehicles on the roads at any given time decreases, or else another reasonably good option could be enforcing the use of bicycles for local travel. Riding a bicycle is in no way below the dignity of any one in the society; after all it is the approach that matters.

The mayor of London rides a bicycle! Everything seems red and rosy when we look through a red glass…and cycling could help in shedding extra fat, which is a growing menace around the globe. Anyway, in the middle of this traffic jam, one of the boys got out of his own vehicle. He proceeded to guide the stranded vehicles as if he had just completed a course in traffic policing. Finally, we too could make our way to the market, nearly half an hour after getting stranded in the traffic jam.

We purchased the vegetables. During this time, we received at least 4 mobile phone calls from home, as if chief chef had no other unfinished assignment there.

Eventually – “All set and done!” the Chief chef declared at 2 pm, “you can start the function. “Luckily it didn’t rain. “We will be winners if the guests arrive even by 3 pm,” one of the organizers exclaimed. I entered the tent and met some old friends. We recollected wonderful days we had spent in the past. The party managers would enter the water proof tent again and again. Some would count the number of guests, and some would just enter and go. Finally, the sound of Tash and nari (the portable wash basin made of copper) brought delight to one and all. It was 5.30 pm when we started eating.

Whether to call it lunch, brunch or early dinner it is difficult to say. People were served in a traditional way with mouthwatering dishes, one after another. The good things that have evolved in the Kashmiri wazwan over last decade are things like the introduction of bottled water instead of the common source drinking water that had been the practice when I was a child. It is certainly a good practice. Secondly, the distribution of envelopes with a beautiful thermal covering inside to carry the meat preparations home is yet another good practice in the wazwan. The high lipid load in a wazwan meal gets shared and the meat is not wasted. Contrary to these positive changes, the vegetable salads, though my favorites at home, seem to be prepared with questionable hygiene. It is better to avoid eating these in a wazwan since they are considered to be vehicles of infection, often leading to the diarrhea too often seen after a wazwan. Finally, “Goshtaba” was served. Its thick creamy white curry marked the end of this heavy but delicious feast. Again, a few young people entered the tent bearing heavy copper tash naris in their hands. They went from one person to another, pouring water from their respective tash naris while the seated guests washed their hands at their respective places after the function. The person who came to us poured warm water from his Tash Nari. As he was serving us in a forward stooping position, he remembered what he had to do, and suddenly corrected his posture and smiled.

He didn’t complain of the fatigue but his face could not conceal his tiredness. Portable hand wash services like this are quite tiring to carry, particularly at large functions where there are many guests. I think it would be much better if the companies associated with such functions could provide temporary arrangements for hand washing, and guests should go for selfservice after the feast.

Abajan smiled lavishly when the uncle responsible for collecting gifts (called vaartav in Kashmiri), approached him with a handsome sum. This is a very good custom of our marriage parties, and at least Abajan will be in a position to pay off some of the expenditure incurred in the course of providing this lavish marriage party. The other side of the coin is that this custom has crossed its limits and has defeated its basic aim. Extravagance involved in this custom has virtually made it a menace and sometimes people don’t attend such parties for this very reason. Yet another aspect of throwing a lavish party like this is that so many young people who cannot afford such parties have to keep postponing their marriages.

Some even dispose of their assets to try and pay for them. It is not unheard of for brides to pass their reproductive years before there is deemed to be sufficient money to pay for the wedding party. All our efforts in life should be focused on living a simple life and refraining from creating wrong customs in society, even if one can afford to do so. The ultimate wisdom is to reduce one’s self to a minimum of desire and will. The less the will is excited, the less we suffer.

“Look at the sparrows; they do not know

what they will do in the next moment.

Let us literally live from moment to moment.”

– Mahatma Gandhi

Excerpt from the Book Bumby Roads authored by Dr. Ibrahim Masoodi who graduated from Govt.Medical college Srinagar, Kashmir and completed his DM in Gastroenterology from PGI Chandigarh India . Apart from his work as a physician Dr Ibrahim has keen interest in literature. He can be mailed at ibrahimmasoodi@yahoo.co.in