A cuisine is a style of cooking characterised by distinctive ingredients, techniques and dishes, and usually associated with a specific culture or geographic region. Kashmir, the north-west region of the state of Jammu & Kashmir, has its very own distinctive culture and, it follows, a uniquely rich tradition of cooking of which every Kashmiri feels unapologetically proud. Known as wazwan, the term is a combination of the words ‘waz’ (meaning ‘to cook’) and ‘wan’ (‘to shop’); loosely translated, it means the method in which the cook displays what he has prepared.
This highly stylistic form of food preparing and serving is one of the more celebrated customs among most Kashmiris, apart from the pashmina shawls and jamawar shawls that signify a peerless art form unparalleled anywhere in the world. Wazwan is usually prepared for weddings and other special social occasions. Wazwan is popular among the Muslims but is equally relished by Kashmiri pundits with some notable differences in the use of ingredients. For instance, if a Muslim wazwan is about using copious amounts of onion and garlic, a Kashmiri pundit’s will eschew the use of both these and instead substitute them with asafetida. Isn’t that remarkable!
What constitutes a wazwan? Wazwan is typically a multi-course meal in the tradition of Kashmiri cuisine, consisting of up to 36 dishes, mostly non-vegetarian, slow-cooked over wood fire by the waza (cooks) through the night, under the ever so watchful eye of the vaste waza (head cook). All near and dear ones, male and female, from the neighbourhood of the venue are invited to participate in the preparation of the royal wazwan. Women will sit around in circles on carpets and spreadsheets, peeling garlic and cleaning the spinach or other greens/ingredients, while cheerfully singing folk Kashmiri songs, the men folk will chip in with more labour-intensive tasks.
As the momentum gathers at the appointed time, the guests are seated in groups of four on spreadsheets usually white in colour, and the ritual washing of hands begins in portable basins called Tash-t-naer, taken around by attendants and the waza/close relatives of the host. Then the food itself arrives in large copper platters known as traem, with up to seven courses served in one go. The customary dishes here being tabak maaz (lamb ribs cooked in a complex mix of spices), safed kokur (chicken in white sauce), methi qorma (lamb/chicken cooked in spices using generous quantities of fenugreek) and zafran kokur (saffron spiked chicken) among others.
A pertinent point to make here: while a Muslim wazwan begins by invoking the blessings of Allah, a Hindu Brahmin will chant the name of their chosen deity, Lord Rudra before partaking anything from the platter. This said, the senior most member of each group proceeds to divide the food equally among the group, and everybody starts gorging on the delicacies.
Here on, it’s a regular procession of one goody after another, each as exotic and mouth-wateringly delicious as any other one can bring to memory. The last dish served usually in any wazwan is gushtaba (densely packed meatballs cooked in a yoghurt based gravy), in a befitting finale to the ceremonial wazwan.
After the main course, the wazwan has to end on a sweet note. A delicious creamy dessert called phirni, made by boiling sooji (semolina) in reduced milk with sugars, then cooled and set in individual clay pots is prepared in advance. Before serving, a generous sprinkle of dry fruits/nuts/seeds is garnished over top of the phirni
With happy, satiated people all around, the vaste waza is secure in the knowledge that all his team’s hard work has been justly rewarded. Not for nothing, marriages in Kashmir are scheduled only after consulting a waza first and securing the dates.
Now, that is the gastronomical roller-coaster of a ride called WAZWAN.