FOR KASHMIR’S WAZAS, THE TRADITIONAL COOKS WHO PREPARE THE WEDDING SMORGASBORD, EXCELLING AT THIS CUISINE STEMS FROM A NECESSARY SKILL – THE POUNDING OF MUTTON.
If you’re invited to a Kashmiri wedding and you’re having trouble finding your way, let the sound guide you. It’s a loud thump, followed by a splatter. And as we walk down an unpaved road in an upper middle-class neighbourhood on the outskirts of Srinagar, searching for the home of Dr Muhammad Shaf, the thumping grows louder. The closer we get, the more emphatic each blow becomes.
Twenty metres later, as we breach the mouth of an open lot, a circle of ten men are gathered around their own stone tablets pounding meat into submission with mallets. Behind them, a makeshift kitchen has taken shape. There are various other food prep stations: at one side men peel vegetables, at another they butcher various cuts of meat and, in the back of the lot, an impressive fire powers copper pots filled with various long-simmering stews.
But if you’re looking for theatre, there’s nothing like the pounding of the mutton. If you stand there for long enough, a piece of errant meat might fly off and stick to your clothes. After four hours or so, the men will sit with a plate of perfect kidney-shaped mutton patties, glistening with moisture. They will then be shaped into rista, a smaller mutton ball that is submerged in a fragrant tomato and saffron gravy and ghustaba, a massive ball of tender mutton stewed in curd seasoned with black cardamom and a paste of young garlic.
To the unitiated, the ritual of beating lamb might seem old-fashioned. “If you want to make good ghustaba, you can’t make it with a machine,” explains the head chef, Shabir Ahmed Waza, who is reassuringly plump and sports a trim goatee. “It doesn’t become tasty.”
And that makes sense. This is Kashmir. Tradition dies hard here. The labour-intensive prep work is all part of waazwan, the traditional banquet of Kashmir. The name waazwan comes from the waza, the expert cooks who’ve often passed the profession on to their sons. Ahmed is a third generation waza. His dad was a waza; his granddad was a waza. He’s been cooking since he was 15. He’s now 36.
I’d arrived in Kashmir just before the unrest that began in June last year. I was excited to see another side of the valley, namely experience Kashmir’s wedding season, which runs from May to July, and sample thewaazwan. For the last two decades, Kashmir, the disputed region that straddles the Himalayas between India and Pakistan, has seen an insurgency that has claimed close to 80 000 lives. The conflict has transformed this land of physical beauty, unique handicrafts and world-class skiing into the world’s most militarised zone. This is obvious as soon as you land at Srinagar airport, which is flooded with machine gun wielding Indian Army soldiers. On the way into Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir, soldiers, roadblocks and barbed wire enveloped mini cantonments dominate the landscape. Both cars and auto rickshaws are routinely stopped by military or local police; drivers and passengers are searched and asked for I D.
But get past the roadblocks and into the homes of Kashmiris and it’s possible to see something else entirely. Kashmiris are famous for their hospitality. And before I’d arrived my friend Mehboob promised me that as long as I showed up, there’d be weddings to attend and waazwan to eat.
It doesn’t take long. A few hours after I land, I am en route to see Ahmed and his 20-man team. Shortly afterwards, while poking around the wedding party, Dr Shaf invites me inside the wedding tent.
Inside, the scene is chaotic. Groups of children and women are running around, fighting for a place to sit. They finally settle in on the carpet-covered floor, in groups of four to six. The pounding of the meat is soon replaced with the thumping of tumbakhnari drums and the voices of women singing traditional Kashmiri wedding songs. The food is then marched down a mud path a couple of doors down to the wedding tent where it’s served.
Each group of guests shares a tramee, a round plate on which the waazwan is layered over a Himalayan sized mound of rice.
Outside, Dr Shaf is detailing the specifics of the feast: “700 kilograms of meat, 50 or 60 sheep, some 500 or 600 chickens, around 30 or 40 kilograms of cheese…Not less than that.”
Those ingredients – and a few more he neglects to mention – are still prepared and procured as they always have been. The lamb is slaughtered on-site according to halal, the ancient Muslim dietary code. The young garlic is fried in ghee; the shallots are sauteed in oil; the saffron comes from Pampore in the south of Kashmir Valley. “It’s [saffron] good for digestion, smell and colour,” Ahmed explains.
This is just the first day of a three day wedding which Dr Shaf is hosting for his relatives. A wedding like this requires wazas to work at least four days at their outdoor kitchen. The food will cook all night long in copper pots, with mud around the bottom to prolong the life of the copper, the same method used for generations. The cooks decrease or increase the heat by adding or removing Kashmiri chinar wood to keep the food at the ideal temperature.
During this time, they will take turns sleeping in three hour shifts in tents, watching the pots, adjusting the heat of the fire and, most importantly, guarding the wedding feast from the incursions of hungry street dogs.
“The most important thing you have to understand about wazas is they are always under pressure,” Mehboob tells me. “Because if the food doesn’t taste good it’s going to be a shame for the family.”
In order to ensure everything’s up to scratch, Mehboob and I taste as many dishes as possible. There’s the superlative palak rista, spinach scented with tiny mutton balls and juicy mutton seekh kebabs, which are grilled on an almost medieval looking four foot long spearlike skewer that’s precariously balanced on either side of the faming chinar wood.
We also get our first glimpse of the ghustaba, the cricket ball sized mutton bomb – stewed in curd and black cardamom – which all Kashmiris call “the full-stop.” We’ll have to wait a day to taste it.
It’s widely believed that waazwan came to Kashmir in the late 1300s, when Timur invaded Kashmir from what is present-day Uzbekistan, before heading south to conquer Delhi. The food that followed was the cuisine of kings – far too rich for everyday consumption.
The brothers Khan Mohammed Sharief and Khan Mohammed Rafq’s attachment to the cuisine may not go that far back, but wazas have been in the family for seven generations. They even claim a famous waza, Aziz Khan, as an ancestor.
Sharief and Rafq followed their father Khan Abdul Ahad into the business. He came to Delhi in the early 1980s and brought waazwan with him. He established a commercial kitchen in South Delhi’s Uday Park neighborhood. Over the years, the business grew and they took on five star hotels as clients. They now travel all over the country with their team of wazas.
Back from Delhi, the brothers are at the family home in Fateh Kadal neighborhood in Srinagar’s old city. Sharief, whom everyone calls Shaf, does most of the talking. He wears blue jeans and a white button down with blue stripes. He is short, chubby and balding. His brother, who is dressed in a beige kurta pyjama, is long and lean with a full moustache. Though their father passed away in 1996, the brothers have tried to honour his legacy. Shaf authored a book in 2001 called Wazwaan: Traditional Kashmiri Cuisine. The family has even begun importing food with the brand name “Kashmiri Wazwan” into foreign countries like America and the Gulf states.
But with their base in Delhi, they’ve also had to adjust their techniques. They’ve moved their operation indoors and cook over gas now, not chinar wood. “We have [also] made some sort of change in the spices,” Shafi admits. “To a great extent, we have brought it down. If you take waazwan here and then take it in Delhi, you will feel the difference. It’s a bit lighter [in Delhi].”
But there are some things they won’t compromise on. Their main cooks are Kashmiri and Shafi insists on serving the seven indispensable dishes of waazwan: tabakh maaz, rista, rogan josh, dhaniwal korma, aab gosh, marchwagan korma and ghustaba.
And his brother Rafiq is very clear on the most important thing young wazas must learn. “The first lesson is how to pound the mutton,” he says. “It’s a combination of how smart you are and your strength. It’s a technique.”
It’s now 24 hours since the pounding of the mutton first began. And back at Dr Shaf’s house, the family of the bride, after serving the guests, is seated at the back of the house in a wood-pannelled room that evokes a sort of rustic ski chalet chic.
In front of us, the food is arranged on huge kidney-shaped serving platters with fat grain Kashmiri rice as the base. Then the meat is layered on top. No part of the lamb is wasted. It’s kebabs first, then intestines and then the lamb rib.
As we share the food, our hands become covered in gravy. I’m attempting to pace myself.
In rapid succession, white suited wazas march out. They’re clutching copper pots, ladling various dishes onto the platter: rogan josh, rista, mirchi korma, and finally, ghustaba.
When the waza finally ladles the ghustaba onto the centre of the tramee, the unctuous white gravy falls all over what’s left of the rice. One of my fellow diners grabs a picked clean lamb bone and confidently brings it down over the ghustaba, dividing the meatball into four even pieces. The pounding has rendered the lamb unrecognizable from minced lamb. And the softness of the meat contrasts perfectly with the simplicity of the curd-based, black cardamom-scented gravy. I’m speechless.
As we sit there in a blissful food coma, I’m reminded of the answer I received when I asked a gregarious, dark-skinned waza named Khurshid Ahmed why ghustaba is always served last. “Just like Muslims believe that Friday is the best day to pray, the ghustaba is the best way to end the meal.” In Kashmir, apparently, it all comes back to tradition.
Byline: Adam Matthews
Photographs: Sami Siva