Kashmiri food carries with it a delicious nip of all things hot and spicy. It might be a little lenient with fat as the Kashmiri’s need to have strong reserves to cope with the harsh winter months. Kashmiri cuisine is a rich tapestry of Indian, Iranian, Afghani and Central Asian styles of cooking. Kashmiri cuisine has some vantage ingredients: that is dry ginger, fennel, red chillies, curds and mustard oil. Even though it is dominated by non-vegetarian fare, the vegetarian delicacies manage to carve a niche for themselves. Puddings, snacks and curries are studded with an abundance of dry fruits like walnuts, dried dates and apricots. Cottage cheese or chaman as the locals call it, is also a popular accompaniment to many non-vegetarian and vegetarian dishes.
One of the typical ingredients in a lot of Kashmiri delicacies is the Kashmiri ver. This is a doughnut-shaped cake of ground spices with a strong and pungent aroma. A thin, hard cake with a hole in its centre, ver contains garlic and ‘praan’(Kashmir onion-a strange cross between a spring onion or scallion and a shallot) for Muslims, asafoetida and fenugreek for Hindus as well as lots of freshly ground red chillies, cumin, coriander, dried ginger, cloves, cardamom and turmeric. All these spices are ground, then made into a patty and is left to dry on wooden planks in the shade. Here it is turned over expertly many times until it is quite hard, after which it is strung and kept for the rest of the year. Small amounts are broken off as needed, crumbled and then sprinkled over many foods to give them a recognizably Kashmiri flavour.
What really is so enchanting about Kashmiri food? It would surely be the scent of saffron, steaming hot cups of kahwa and the celestial cuisine. If ‘K’ stands for Kashmir it also does for the world renowned soothing drink called kahwa tea, which is a speciality of Kashmir. With its unique aroma, kahwa is a brew of tea leaves with cardamoms, cinnamon and quite often saffron too is added. Just before serving crushed almonds are sprinkled on the brew. Kahwa not only rejuvenates but is also a health drink!
One example par excellence of the divine cuisine would probably be that of shab deg. The treatment of turnips with saffron, the special Kashmiri ver and the koftas, cooked on slow heat in a sealed deg (pear-shaped pot) till the break of dawn, lend this dish its distinguished status. The culinary skill of a cook in preparing this dish lies in the deftness with which all the koftas (mutton balls and turnips) are made to look like one another and that they are cooked to a perfect texture. Apart from the carefully crafted ingredients, pieces of mutton or game birds are also cooked in the gravy.
One of the typical ingredients of Kashmiri cuisine is the generous use of curds in the gravies, giving the dishes a rich and creamy consistency. The Kashmiris also use asafoetida to flavour their meat dishes. In fact mutton is cooked in many a varied form and more than a hundred recipes are known in Kashmir! Saunf (aniseed) and dry ginger are other spices used imaginatively to enhance the taste. For instance some dishes get their pungency not from chillies, but from dry ginger. Other dishes have no spice except may be a little saunf added to them for flavour.
Kashmiri cuisine borders on ingredients that are rich in nutrients: walnuts, almonds and raisins being some from the list of makings of a curry. To ward off the chill, the cooking medium is either ghee or mustard oil. The latter lends a typical taste to the dishes and that is what Kashmiri cuisine is all about: a beautiful blend of spices and mustard oil in specific proportions, the time and method of frying and cooking that produce many palate-tickling delights.
Kashmiris are probably the only Hindus who serve meat on religious ceremonies like marriages, shradhs etc. Traditional Kashmiri cooking does not involve onions, garlic or tomatoes. The average Kashmiri starts the day with a cup of tea and a special bread called girdha or lavasa which is baked fresh at the local bakers. Lunch typically consists of plain white rice served with a green vegetable hakh or chath monj, a cottage cheese preparation with some vegetable. At tea time, kahwa tea is served with telvor, a small baked scone which is also eaten with butter and jam. Dinner consists of rogan josh or kaliya, pala or some other vegetable and curd.
There is yet another type of tea that is associated with Kashmir. Called nun chai, it is made out of green tea, which is boiled for a long time and it has salt instead of sugar.