Thursday, April 14, 2016

Oh Kashmir ! - The Vegetarian in the Valley

This Blog is a two part series on my culinary adventures in Kashmir.

Part 1 - The Vegetarian in the Valley

Green meadows,  mountains ringed by white fluffy clouds and picturesque fields of daffodils all singing along to the songs of the Shikara Boatsmen. That's our idea of Kashmir - fueled by film actors in the 60's and 70's movies serenading groups of picnicking girls or lovers running around Chinar trees. 

Terrorism (sadly) the Dal Lake, postcard-esque scenery and shawls are not the only things Kashmir are synonymous with. Every foodie worth his salt (and pepper) will sell his soul for a chance to have authentic Kashmiri food and rightfully so because one can never replicate the taste anywhere other than Kashmir. The tenderness of the meat, the flavor of the saffron - even the sweetness of the onions they serve as salad on the table is perhaps preserved in it's natural habitat.

Kashmir is known to be a meat lover's paradise. And as a vegetarian I was warned to carry my theplas along with me since,"Babe you won't get anything but apples there." The land which has been the bone of contention between India and Pakistan,has a strong influence of Muslim food. The vegetable dishes
In most Muslim homes across
the border in Pakistan arent vegetarian -they all use lamb stock or even actual mutton in them. Even the Kashmiri Pandits who are the Brahmins in the caste system there eat meat. Poultry however, is never served since it is looked down upon as poor-man's meat. 

To my surprise and delight Kashmiri Vegetarian food is not only not an oxymoron but it is flavorful and subtle with each dish having its own individual magical combination of spices and aromatics. Spices that don't engulf or give heat but instead tease the palatte and make one greedily offer ones plate for seconds and thirds.

The most famous and most bastardized Kashmiri dish is  DUM ALOO. When we think of this dish we think of a heavily cashew rich gravy with potatoes stuffed with raisins. The ones I ate in Kashmir were  robustly spiced reddish brown curries with plump potatoes that are soft on the inside and firm on the outside.

HAAQ which is like a spinach leaf is a watery sabzi that is cooked in some special spice blend which makes one forget that they are eating green  leaves. I had it at several places and it's fantastic everywhere u go.

WAZA PANEER is a tomato based curry. But the paneer is different from its Punjabi ancestors. This paneer has a halloumi like stretchy texture and is cut in big chunks. I had two versions - one with slit green chillies and one with a red chilly paste. Both were spectacular with the  richness of the cheese contrasted by the sharpness of the curry.

YAKHNI NADRU is a yoghurt based stew which is primarily flavored by cardamom and has sliced lotus roots in it. The word Yakhni is normally associated for its non-veg counterpart in a pulao where meat and rice are cooked with whole spices in yoghurt. This was one of the few dishes where just one spice stands out - in this case elaichi which dominates the flavor of this dish.

GUCCHI PULAV is a fragrant rice preparation made with morels. Obnoxiously expensive these oligarchical mushrooms are just a rung below truffles in their price and flavor. This Pulav is rare since it's expensive to make but such a delight to eat if you can actually manage to find it. 

RAJMA is suprisingly also a Kashmiri delicacy. These kidney beans are smaller than their punjabi counterparts and aren't over powered by ginger or garlic. 

To wash down this heavy meal you have had on a mountain of rice       (yes that one is a suprise too - Kashmiris are rice eaters and you see the paddy fields on the outskirts of Kashmir when you drive to Pehelgaum), try KAHWA. This mild mannered golden tea perfumed with saffron and cardomon and pistachio slivers is delicately sweetened. 

It goes perfectly with the Kashmiri FIRNI which is airy and uses semolina and milk instead of rice. The result whilst less rich are more soufflĂ© like  is lighter which is perfect given how much food you have consumed.