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Kashmir ki kali

When I was 11, during a summer vacation in Chennai, one of my grandmother’s Kashmiri friends came to visit her. She was very very fair, spoke with a strange nasal accent and her surname or last name was Bhat. Not Bhatt with the double T, my grandmother corrected. Not related to Mahesh Bhatt either, she said. She was a Kashmiri Pandit who had moved to Chennai when all the tamasha began in Kashmir.

I had no idea what she was talking about, all that really struck me was that the friend smelt a little different.  A bit pungent and musty, if you may. That, my grandmother told me, was because they ate different from us.  Used a lot of mustard oil in their cooking, ate a lot of meat.

This was a bit strange for me, because I did have a Kashmiri friend from school. But I don’t ever remember eating ‘different’ food in her house. I mean, we ate chicken curry and rice. Lots of vegetables and plenty of greens. But nothing that would make her smell different. (I mean I sat with her on the same bench with her for at least four years, if not more), so unless my olfactory senses were biased because we were friends.

Nonetheless, every time she’d come to, I could smell that ‘smell’. And over time accepted it as a unique part of her visits. I’d totally forgotten about the ‘smell’, until a few years ago, almost soon after I met my husband.

Not that my husband is Kashmiri, (he’s from the south, but that’s for another day) but he knew a lot of Kashmiris because of where he worked. His boss was Kashmiri, and every time we’d drop in for a visit, that ‘smell’ would encompass me.

Yes, it was mustard oil. Yes, it smelt different. But oh-boy, did it taste wonderful! It was in their house that I first ate Gushtaba (giant meat balls made from goat’s meat), first ate Paneer (cottage cheese) in red gravy and first ate steamed haak (Collard Greens).  It was here that I realized Kashmiris ate as much white rice (or more!) than South Indians. We were invited for weddings where we ate meethe chawal (sweet rice), drank copious amounts of Kahwa (Kashmiri green tea made with saffron or cardamom and lots of almonds).

Don’t get me wrong, I’d eaten Kashmiri before. Rogan josh,  yakhni, dum aloo, shorba – pretty much your quintessential Kashmiri khaana that’s available at most restaurants, all very oily, with prominent flavours of  saffron and cardamon but nothing that tasted like this.

These flavours were simple – you’d get a lot of aniseed, yogurt and whole masala in your food. There were no onions, garlics or tomatoes in the recipes. It was just the meat or vegetable that shone through.

So after eating at their house for over a year, I decided it was time to venture into the world of Kashmiri cuisine and while rummaging through a bookshop found this book – Kashmiri Cuisine: Through the ages by Sarla Razdan.  It had just been released and the recipes seemed simple enough, so I decided to pick it up.
I don’t regret picking this book up for one moment. The recipes were simple. And if you followed her time-saving instructions, you could really make a meal in a jiffy. 

 I did just that. I bought ginger powder. Powdered saunf or aniseed and methi (fenugreek) seeds. Made sure that I had enough mustard oil and khada masala (whole masalas such as bay leaf, cinnamon stick, cloves, black cardamom, green cardamom and whole back pepper. Stocked my refrigerator with milk and yogurt (not like I was ever running out of it) and decided to take a crack at the book.

The first time I cooked out of this book, it was just for my husband and me. I made Chaman Kaliya (Paneer/Cottage cheese in yellow gravy) and Haak (Collard Greens) and to my surprise dinner was ready in 20 minutes. And it all tasted excellent. The second time, I decided to make a proper meal out of it. I called five of my friends over and tried a number of recipes.  I made Nadir Monjvor (Lotus stem cutlets) as an appetizer.  For the vegetarian main course I made Dum aluv (Potatoes in a red yogurt gravy), Nadir Yakhni (Lotus stem in Yogurt sauce), Phool rogan josh (Cauliflowers in a thick red gravy) and Chaman Kaliya. For the non-vegetarians there were Gushtaba (meatballs in yogurt sauce) and Kokur Masala (Kashmiri styled fried chicken).

Seemed like a lot of food for seven people no? It wasn’t. In fact in the middle of meal, I even ran out of rice and had to put another batch. Of which, might I add, maybe a few grains were left over. And my guests still had space for dessert and Kahwa.

Post that, I’ve made a number of Kashmiri meals. I’ve tried out nearly every meat, chicken and vegetarian dish in the book. I’ve fed an army of 20, I’ve had quiet 4-people lunches and often if I can get fresh haak, I’ve eaten it for dinner, standing over the kitchen sink alone.

The true test, this book has been through, was when my husband took some of the leftovers to his office and fed his Kashmiri colleagues. They were impressed by the authenticity of the flavours.  The only criticism he got was that there wasn’t enough oil in it. 

I’m going to take that as a compliment though. Because while this book specifies the oil quantities, I’ve made everything with two or maximum three teaspoons of mustard oil. Deep-fried food such as paneer or chicken or potatoes are often pan fried and really, the taste doesn’t change at all. Also when my friend P Diddy, another fellow Kashmiri food lover came over, he said my house smelt Kashmiri. It had that 'smell'. 

Don’t be deterred by the pictures in this book. That is, the food pictures. The other pictures are beautiful. The food pictures could be stylized and shot a lot better. But buy this book for the recipes and introduce yourself to the wonderful world of home-style Kashmiri cooking.

Buy this book in India, US and UK.

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  1. Yay! Rooch.. this was just what I was waiting to read :) Been looking for a good book on Kashmiri cuisine and I just didn't know which one was good..

  2. Renuks, is v good. Plus I forgot to mention the Rajma, which is really really awesome.

  3. Oh it IS the mustard oil. My friends come over and say your house smells different. Hubby Runs out when I am smoking the mustard oil, I hand him a pair of garden gloves so he can make good use of his time outside :))

    Loved reading your adventure with Kashmiri food.

    Another book you might try on Kashmiri cuisine is Koshur Saal by Chandramukhi Ganjoo.

  4. Thanks Anshie, will do just that. Ordering it right away :)

  5. I know that smell! :) and I love it!
    I am new to Kashmiri cuisine and was amazed at the quick to cook recipes with complex flavors. I don't know a quicker, healthier and delicious way to cook greens than 'Haak'. 'I don't have time to cook' is no more an excuse.

  6. Absolutely right. By the time the pot of rice boils, things are pretty much ready

  7. oh the food was delish. you had no leftovers that day!! cauli and paneer sat quite happily in my stomach....yumm...

    1. Chompsee, I made some last night too. Really thought of you

  8. Replies
    1. And it is Jay!! The book helps you create awesome stuff