You would be hard pressed to find Kashmiri Food in a restaurant in Bangalore. The last time I relished Kashmiri Food was at a special Wazwan arranged by Bangalore Foodies Group and that was well over a year ago. A wazwan is a great way to experience the cuisine of Kashmiri Muslims – it constitutes a royal banquet of over 30-40 dishes shared family style between groups of people. Most Kashmiri Food Festivals dish out the Wazwan style meal and the Gushtaba (velvety meatballs in a yogurt gravy) is its crowning glory. But the Cubbon Pavilion decided to showcase the less populist but equally exquisite cuisine of the Kashmiri Pundits. While both the cuisines share a lot of similarities (same ingredients and style of cooking) – the Kashmiri Pundit cuisine is unique in the fact that they do not use onion and garlic in their dishes. The tomato is also an oddity here and they resort to yoghurt based dishes to provide the same tangy taste. The most interesting aspect for me was that even though pundits in the rest of India eschew meat eating, Kashmiri pundits eat mutton and fish. Chicken and eggs however remains a taboo in the more orthodox families, but the younger generation has taken to including the same in their meals.
The festival called ‘Poush’ (Flower) is spearheaded by Masterchef Suman Kaul who is a Kashmiri Pundit and is passionate about the food of her ‘Gul Poush Vaadie of Kashmir’. A home chef who honed her skills in the kitchens of her grandmother found a patron in the ITC group who invited her to come onboard as a Food Consultant in 2006. Eight years of hosting Kashmiri Pundit Food Festivals across ITC hotels in the country have just made this affable lady more passionate about bringing a cuisine as old as time, to us mere mortals. (The Rig-Veda talks about the eating habits of Kashmiris – so as old as time is a good analogy no? :P)
There was a palpable excitement in the air as I entered the restaurant. Not to sound all dramatic, but it just makes me giddy with pleasure and pride to sample the more veiled cuisines of the wonderland that is India. And when I met the absolutely delightful Chef Suman and her husband, I knew this evening would unfold like a delicious book that reveals its treasures page by page. Not your traditional/average Chef-y type people, the Kauls made me feel like I was at their home and it was their duty to ensure their guest was well fed! And this treatment was not reserved especially for me but for every guest dining at the Cubbon Pavilion that night. In the jaded world of ‘fake love’ of restaurateurs and chefs for food writers, their sincerity was a breath of fresh air. Maybe living in the so called ‘Paradise on Earth’ just gives you a nicer disposition.
The festival is organized buffet style for dinner, so you have an option to sample the entire range of dishes. The bad part to this of course is that you will be tempted to try a whole lot more than your stomach is capable of holding! We started with the Kabargah, which was a succulent rack of mutton simmered in milk, saffron and Kashmiri spices. It is finally roasted in ghee before being brought to the table. The Kabargah is a special occasion dish because of the length of time it takes to make it. The meat is marinated for six hours in the milk and spice mixture and then slow cooked for another six hours. The final slow roasting of the meat in ghee ensures that the mutton fat is almost buttery and the spices just come alive. Serving this dish first, also ensures your palate is primed to enjoy its subtle flavors. The Tabak Maaz from the Kashmiri Muslim cuisine is similar in technique, though the one that I tried had a smattering of chilli powder whereas the Kabargah had no trace of it.
Disclaimer: All the credit for the trivia on Kashmiri cuisine that I’m writing about here, goes to Mr.Kaul. He kept popping by our table from time to time to patiently answer my umpteen questions on the cuisine. He finally gave up and just pulled up a chair post dessert so that we could continue the sprightly conversation which went on way past dinner, for another hour or so over Kevah.
The vegetarian starter was an interesting Bhajiya (chickpea fritter) of apples and paneer. The combination might seem strange but once you bite into it, you understand the pairing a lot better. Besides Kashmir is known for its delicious red apples so it makes absolute sense that they would use it judiciously.
Another famous export of Kashmir, apart from Apples and Saffron (more on that later) is their Basmati Rice. Grown extensively in the plains of Jammu, its fragrance, sheen and length of the grain is legendary. Sadly us Indians are deprived of the chance to enjoy it as most of it is exported! The Kashmiri Pundits main carbohydrate is basmati rice. They pretty much eat rice with every meal and the appearance of rotis are rare. So though the restaurant offered a choice of breads, I decided to stick to enjoying the main courses with rice. On offer were two varieties – plain steamed basmati rice and Modur Pulav, which was a borderline dessert with it saffron, raisins, almonds and coconut slivers. With a plate full of rice, I started ladling a dozen bowls with the variety of main courses on offer. It helped that I had a very accommodating dinner date who bought into the idea of sharing. This way I could try everything! *insert evil laughter*
The Moush (Lamb minced Dumplings in a rich chilli gravy) and the Kasher Gaad (succulent fish in red gravy) were a fantastic accompaniment to the rice. The lamb dumplings found a twist of taste by being minced with apricots. The spicy red gravy with hints of the sweetness from the apricots actually made me want to eat it with the sweet saffron rice. I don’t know if this is de rigueur but I thoroughly enjoyed the spicy-sweet combination. Kashmiri Pundits generally use freshwater Trout for their fish preparations, however Chef Kaul substituted Betki in Banaglore because Trout, well, tastes best when it is fresh and transporting it from Kashmir to Bangalore (if even over a day or two) compromises the taste.
I overlooked the popular Roganjosh (lamb rack in a hot gravy) for more rare-to-find-elements of Kashmiri cuisine and headed straight for the Haak. Essentially a collard green, it is soul food for the Kashmiri. Eaten with plain rice, it is a simple preparation of greens cooked in water with salt, mustard oil and hing (asefodita). A true Kashmiri can apparently tell the difference between Haak that is grown on land and Haak that is grown close to the water. The ones that grow by the famous Dal Lake apparently have a unique flavor. Chef Kaul lugged her consignment of Haak (along with Kashmiri Morels, Kashmiri spices and Kashmiri Saffron) personally to Bangalore. She claimed that Bangalore apparently had the perfect climate to grow Haak and one of us should attempt it. Any takers?
The Nadru Yakhni is another one of those dishes that begs to be tried. Lotus stem cooked in a rich yoghurt gravy – it is subtly spiced with ginger powder and fennel, peppered with whole spices. Lotus stems cut on the diagonal make a pretty picture with the flower-like patterns created by the water tubes running the length of the stem. Very fibrous, it requires a special cooking skill to get it just right for consumption. The ones I sampled were sublime – it retained the crunch but was also soft like an apple. I have had lotus stem before, where I felt I could use it as a toothbrush, so I was doubly appreciative of how well this was cooked.
I had my eye on the Morels as soon as I walked in the door. The Kanagechi Chaman (Kashmiri Morels with Paneer in a tangy gravy) was a definite treat. Mr.Kaul stated that a kilo of good quality morels retails at Rs.30000/- and even then it is rare to get authentic ones outside of Kashmir. I remember a Sindhi friend telling me that Gucchi Biryani (Morel Biryani) is mandatorily prepared by the mother-in-law to appease the groom as a wedding ritual. The Kashmiris also have a similar tradition where a morel dish is mandatory during the haldi ceremony. I assume it’s a show of status, but I’d like to believe they favor it more for its aphrodisiac properties 😛
Other surprises included the Gogji Rajma – a rajma dish so different from the Punjabi version that I intend to hold a blind tasting for my friends to see if they will pick this one as the winner. The addition of turnips (that honestly tasted and felt more like potatoes) just made it all the more interesting. And when I finally realized that the tangy gravy was not a result of tomatoes (apparently Pundits don’t used tomatoes in their cuisine – *gasp*) I was pretty much floored.
I also MUST nominate the Kashmiri Dum Aloo that I had on Friday as the best dum aloo I have ever eaten. It looked innocuous enough and I was actually going to pass it by, but for the strangely maniacal way the man beside me was piling his plate with it. The almost reddish-black spice coated potato was very different from the gravy laden poseurs you see in north Indian restaurants. Every bite resulted in a hot spice explosion in the mouth calmed only by the buttery softness of the potato inside. I can no longer call the Dum Aloos I have eaten earlier as Dum Aloo’s and Chef Suman you are to blame! 🙂
In Kashmiri Pundit cuisine, the dessert is almost an afterthought and people generally gorge on the main courses. However we were happy that the menu incorporated not one but three desserts! The Saffron Kheer led us into a debate on why Kashmiri Saffron is so valued the world over. The production first of all is limited to the Pampur region of Kashmir and harvesting saffron as we all know, is a product of manual labour. It definitely tastes very different from the Spanish saffron I had at home and the length of each strand was much longer. The colour was also a cheery yellow and the final flavor seemed honey-like. All of which got me thinking that I definitely need to procure some Kashmiri saffron the next time I’m there. Hopefully I will get lucky and avoid taking home thinly sliced coconut fibers dyed to look like saffron! (Shocking news – courtesy of Mr.Kaul).
The Saffron Phirni was delectable but the show stealer was the Shufta (??) – a mixture of nuts roasted in ghee and dressed with honey and saffron. It almost looked like watery chikki but looks can be so deceptive. I was informed that this is always served in small quantities and one bite reinforced the message. It was so rich and decadent that I felt guilty even looking at it. But it tasted so divine that pretty much everyone on the table polished off their portions.
We washed down the perfect meal with a matka of piping hot Kehwa (Kashmiri sweet green tea with almonds and cardamom). This was served with what I thought was a bagel that the waitstaff had casually lifted from the bread section. I was later informed that this was a traditional Kashmiri bread called Tel Varu which is the standard accompaniment to Kehwa. A crusty, salty doughnut shaped bread sprinkled with sesame seeds, the Tel Varu could pass off as a spongier alternative to the pretzel.
I earnestly think anyone with an interest in Kashmiri cuisine or for that matter, just anyone with an interest in sampling honestly good food needs to pay a visit to Cubbon Pavilion over the course of this week. I am in rapturous over this wonderful woman’s cooking! What really makes it stand apart is the fact that she cooks with heart…and that my friends, is definitely food for the soul.