The air was laden with bits of white fluff. They floated, opalescent, backlit by the spring sun. They made the shaggy street dogs sneeze, got tangled in uncovered hair, stuck to the gnarly trunks of the towering chinars, and eased weightlessly into the Jhelum. It was late spring in Srinagar and love filled the air, literally. The Russian poplars were mating and had unleashed a blizzard. And it was not just the trees; this was also wedding season in Srinagar. I was in town looking for food and found that in this season food finds you first.
Strolling along the Jhelum I ran into a wedding near Amira Kadal, into a hive of nearly twenty-five men preparing the wazwan—Kashmir’s storied wedding banquet. Junaid Ali was marrying off his daughter and six hundred guests would be fed a twelve-course feast, all meat. This is an inner-city working-class neighbourhood. What does he do to foot this kind of bill? “I’m a driver.”
The scene, framed by the river, was pure theatre. The waza or head chef sat harvesting choice boneless chunks from lamb legs for korma, barking the occasional instruction to his underlings hacking ribs into shape for tabak maaz. Two men sat mincing lamb for waza sheekh. Then there was the gustaba pounding pipeline: eight men, each with a stone mortar and a heavy wooden mallet. Starting with boneless chunks, each man pounded a spice into the meat before passing it on. The last man, breathing a metronomic “shhk shhk shhk”, pounded in lamb fat, turning the mash pink. The end result was glistening oval discs. Later, bubbling in delicate yoghurt gravy, the melting fat would stretch these into enormous orbs.
The sangeet was on in the adjoining tent. The women drummed on the tumbaknari — the Kashmiri dumbek — but the songs, ranging from ‘Man dole re’ to ‘Chikni Chameli’, were all Bollywood. I requested a Kashmiri number and they belted out a song about kongposh (saffron) and badam (almond), both star players in the feast.
In the kitchen tent, a dozen men worked over a raging fire fed by whole logs arranged along a trench. On it simmered enormous brass vats bearing aab gosht, rogan josh, rista, pulao. The only way to regulate the heat was to get the vats on or off the fire, which required careful and intimate choreography. It took two men, each with a free arm wrapped around the other’s shoulder, to hoist a vat onto the fire, where it landed with a crunch and a shower of embers. They had been at it since 8am, it was now 6.30pm and the kitchen was a frenzied blur because the baraat was arriving in an hour. Junaid invited me to stay. I could barely tear myself away, but I had a dinner invitation at the Lalit.
On my way over I got reacquainted with Srinagar. I was visiting after four years and the city showed evidence of someone with imagination: no concertina wires, very few bunkers, no febrile signs screaming “CRPF Ajay! Bharat Mata ki Jai!”, nor the flex hoardings where a jawan pours water into the cupped hands of an old Kashmiri man. This Srinagar was sharp and functional. The streets bore not a speck of trash, making me want to declare my city, Calcutta, a disturbed area. As I got off my efficient radio cab at the Lalit, the evening breeze rustled through the magnificent chinars and the air was perfumed with honeysuckle.
The Lalit Grand Palace is a marriage of beauty and gravitas. Spectacularly situated on the lap of the Zabarwan hills facing the Dal lake, it hoards a hefty past. Built in 1910 by the Dogra ruler Pratap Singh and passed onto his nephew Hari Singh, the Maharaja of Kashmir in 1947, this palace has been through several avatars. In the mid-90s it had become a glorified guesthouse for senior security officials, parts of it rumoured to be interrogation chambers and incarceration cells.
At the palace’s Durbar Hall, now a restaurant, my chair sat on a 112-year-old carpet. A gift from the Emperor of Persia, this single 50’x30’ piece was hand-woven by Persian prisoners, on which diners blithely dropped naan crumbs. Under Pratap Singh’s stern gaze, I plodded through a terrifyingly ambitious wazwan spread, eating my weight in meat.
The rogan josh was buttery, the gustaba velvety, the korma rich. But the standouts were less familiar: rista haaq — tiny meatballs, bright and toothsome, enmeshed in earthy cooked greens; gucchi yakhni — cottage cheese-stuffed Kashmiri morels in a creamy yoghurt sauce, the mushrooms aromatic and cartilaginous; the cashew garlic chutney — beyond sublime, alone or scooped up with sheermal, a dense spongy bread studded with saffron threads. By the twelfth course, I had wilted and reached for the phirni, a not-too-sweet milk pudding with coarse rice flour. This high-pitched and heavy meal had an exquisitely subtle finale in kahwa, a delicate brew of saffron and green tea poured on almond slivers. The perfect rinse for the grease!
The next morning my host introduced me to his 73-year-old Kashmiri Pandit neighbour. Dr Dhar was sitting in her garden effusive with irises, and the desolation in her limpid blue eyes was striking. I felt I had come to a still mountain lake with dark caves in its depths. She shared her memories of Pandit women lining up in Hari Parbat carrying trays of tahari or yellow rice and red meat curry as offerings to Sharika. She talked about the festival of gaad-bata or fish-rice in the dead of winter, when rice and gaad-nadur — a fiery fish dish prepared with lotus stems, a winter produce — would be placed in the garret for the deity of the house. Then, as if in explanation, she said, “We lived between the seven bridges; now we are scattered across the seven seas.”
We had chatted well into lunchtime. Did I want a taste of her lunch? But, of course. The ensuing meal of peeli paneer and haaq had quiet, confident flavours. The paneer was a delicate creamy rendition, with sweet aromatic notes of fennel and a subtle ginger heat. The haaq, lightly stewed greens with a bit of salt and one red chilli, had an exquisite residual crunch. As I ate, Dr Dhar, her eyes focussed in the middle distance, related the story of her husband’s kidnapping in 1992. Outside, the sky had turned an ominous grey. As I walked back in the drizzle, I noticed that the rain had cleared the air of the love fluff.
It was still raining in the evening when I headed over to Khayyam Chowk for some tuje — marinated mutton cubes skewered and grilled over glowing coals. Standing around a grill on a cold wet evening was pleasure enough; the perfume of seared flesh rising from the half dozen grills in the narrow lane was a bonus. I had planted myself outside Imran’s. The man working the grill had jet-black eyebrows set against a very pale face. I asked him about Khayyam Cinema down the lane, which once served up three helpings of Bollywood a day. When did it close? In between flipping the skewers and releasing ember flakes into the night, he answered: “Jab se tarikh shuru hui tab se wo cinema bandh ho gaya.” It shut down the day history began.
Imran’s tuje hit all the high notes. The thing about tuje is that it’s juicy yet chewy, and that extra chew yields additional flavour, prolonging the pleasure. You tear off the sizzling meat from the skewers using a thin flatbread, dip it in an array of chutneys of yoghurt with grated radish, cucumber, or Kashmiri mirch, and pop it in. Then you are speechless for it is a large mouthful. But also because it is a symphony of textures and tastes—the juicy charred meat, the cool yoghurt, and the pungent crunch of radish.
At the crack of dawn I took a shikara to the floating vegetable market. Srinagar grows its vegetables right in its heart, on floating patches and along the shores of the Dal. Every morning at 5am sellers and buyers gather in their canoes in a nook on the lake and engage in brisk wholesale business. I saw about twenty-five canoes milling about, making and breaking patterns like waterfowl. This was clearly munje or kohlrabi season. I was surrounded by canoes piled high with the pale green orbs. There was also radish and various greens and a bracing fragrance of garlic scapes and mint.
It was hard to tell the buyers from the sellers. There was a lot of jostling, most of it good-natured. A quick dump of a large bunch of greens into a canoe, a howl of protest, money changing hands, some grousing — a deal is done. Time for some tsot and noon chai perched on the grass mat at the canoe’s prow, your pheran sleeves hanging limp.
Noon chai or salt tea is much less tea than a hearty broth. This pale pink concoction of milky tea, salt and bicarbonate of soda, paired with one of Kashmir’s many breads, is a surprisingly satisfying breakfast. Tsot, for instance — a 6” disc, mildly elastic and toothsome, with a handsome ribbed face. Or lavasa — a paper-thin blistered naan. These emerge at daybreak from the glowing wombs of the city’s innumerable kandurs or bakers. If you want to find one just ask the boy walking home toting the huge wad of tsot.
The kandurs serve up a different fare for afternoon tea: the flaky baqar-khani sprinkled with sesame seeds, or the Kashmiri kulcha, a savoury shortbread. Kashmir’s central Asian character is plain in her intimacy with her kandur. Outside the Hazratbal shrine one afternoon, I watched the baked goods fly off the shelves of a thronged kandur. The baqarkhani that I managed to score had an exquisite golden glow, an almost brittle bite and a delectable buttery mouthful laced with toasted sesame.
The morning market had made me want to taste some of these fresh veggies, home-cooked. When I tenuously presented this to Mushtaque, my shikarawallah, he was instantly certain that his Ammi would oblige. We paddled through narrow channels in the Dal with improbably green canopies, past exuberant vegetable patches, and men netting small perch. By the time we had docked at his home we were in rural Kashmir, yet only minutes from Rainawari in the inner city.
Mushtaque’s Ammi was true to billing. A rotund woman with a kilowatt smile, she waddled over to her vast vegetable patch, harvested some crisp Kashmiri spinach, one plump kohlrabi with greens, and some red radish, and proceeded to cook a meal as her large family swirled around her compact kitchen that would put a ship’s galley to shame. She pounded the radish with mint into a chutney, stewed the spinach with garlic and fennel, and made a chilli garlic kohlrabi with greens. Farm to table — rather dastarkhan cloth — within minutes. The chutney had a fragrant crunch, the spinach was soothing, the kohlrabi smooth and bright. But I found everything powerfully oversalted until I realized I was eating like the rich: too little rice, too much other stuff.
On my final night I hit the Food Street off Lal Chowk. This is the old Bata Gali or rice lane next to the KMD bus depot that has recently been oomphed up by the JKTDC, complete with an arched brick entrance and curly cast-iron lampposts. Within, a dozen vendors sit with vats of vegetables, rajma, meat, rista, gustaba. People come here to eat quantities of fiery meat and rice for a song: villagers in Lal Chowk for business, local traders, day labourers, and the odd tourist. But tonight it was deserted; I had caught it in the middle of a hartal.
Lal Chowk was empty: an eerie, rain-slicked cityscape. The road swooping down Amira Kadal into Lal Chowk, ordinarily throbbing with traffic and commerce, was vacant. The lone CRPF armoured truck and its gunner huddled in the rain. But this was not a glowering quiet. Shops had downed shutters protesting a racket of spurious medicines. This was peace and quiet. My footsteps echoed as I cleared the puddles. Then I saw a truck trundle by. Its tailgate sign read: All Izz Well.
Where to stay
Besides hotels and shikaras, Srinagar now offers the option of homestays. We stayed in siblings Zulfikar and Yasmeen Hussain’s charming bungalow tucked into leafy and tony Rajbagh (Rs 6,500, including breakfast, for each of two floors with two bedrooms and bathrooms, a living area and a kitchenette; 9906505354).
Where to eat
- For forgettable food (grilled rainbow trout Rs 675, seafood bisque Rs 275) in a breathtaking setting, go have lunch in Latitude at the Vivanta by Taj—Dal View (0194-2461111, vivantabytaj.com).
- Imran does excellent tuje, and so does Hashem and Garib Nawaz, all along the same little lane at Khayyam Chowk. Rs 80 per skewer, each has five botis. Roti and chutneys included.
- Kandur goodies such as tsot, baqarkhani and kulcha are typically Rs 5–10 per piece. For a sweet fix, try the giant coconut cookies (Rs 10) with a parched earth-like crisp exterior and a gooey heart.
- At the Food Street, you can get a filling meal for Rs 40–80.