Wazwan, the Fine Art of Kashmiri Cooking
The beautiful valley of Kashmir was in splendid isolation from the mainland due to the mighty mountains surrounding it. This led to the evolution of a number of practices which are different in nature and peculiar to the valley. One such area which is unique is the art of cooking a variety of exotic dishes and serving it during marriages and important state functions, where a large number of guests are to be served. In the Kashmiri language it is called wazwan. Waza means a cook and wan means a shop. Thus literally wazwan means the cook's shop or the dishes the cook is going to put up for the guests to enjoy.
The wazas or the cooks, all males, are in high demand especially during the marriage season. It used to be a traditional function from father to son, but like all manual skills the wazas were not held in high esteem. With spread of education and availability of alternative jobs, there numbers are declining. Also as the demand is not throughout the year and earnings are not uniform is not attracting today's youth to become wazas.
Typically a wazwan can have twenty five to thirty or more number of dishes. It depends on the host's money purse and how much he is willing to spend. Kashmiris are voracious meat eaters and wazwan dishes are predominantly meat based. But there are many exotic vegetarian dishes also served in a typical wazwan.
The standard wazwan will consist of a variety of meat kababs, rista (minced meat balls), aab ghost (meat cooked in milk), tabak maaz ( sheep ribs cooked in ghee), ghostaba ( finely minced meat balls cooked in curd), roghan josh (meat cooked in spices), yakhni (meat cooked in yoghurt), and mirchi korma. The vegetarian dishes are dum aloo (deep fries whole potatoes cooked under dum), nadroo yakhni (lotus stem cooked in curd), spicy and non spicy variety of paneer or cottage cheese, and the simple but tasty mujh chattni (chattni of raddish in curd). Addition to these standard dishes would depend on the host. Earlier on chicken dishes were not popular but today chicken and fish based dishes are also served.
What separates the wazwan dishes from the ordinary is the preparation of the main ingredients before cooking is staretd. This makes the whole process very time consuming and energy intensive. Minced meat dishes require lot of labour to achieve the desired fineness by manual pounding boneless meat for four or more hours, on stone slabs. A typical Kashmiri Muslim wedding may involve cooking of 350 - 400 kgs or more of meat and a Pandit wedding may involve cooking 200-250 kgs of meat as some dishes are traditionally not prepared by them. Depending on the type of dish, the meat has to be from a particular part of the sheep and it has also to be cut into pieces in a particular manner. Only Kashmiri butchers know this fine art of cutting pieces the best.. The style of cutting enhances the acquiring of taste by the pieces while cooking. Also, each piece has to be not less than a specified weight and all should be of similar weight so that they are cooked uniformly. The size of the pieces is also kept uniform so that all guests get same size pieces.
The preparation begins a day or two before the function. Traditional wazas will insist on cooking in large copper vessels and will burn wood to provide heat. However now gas cylinders are replacing the vanishing wood. Usually the waza will talk to the meat supplier for his requirements and will receive it at the place of cooking. Along with his helpers the meat and other ingredients will be prepared for eventual cooking.
Usually many hours before serving , say on the day of the wedding lunch or dinner, the various dishes are cooked on slow heat in the copper vessels. This slow cooking helps in the gradual absorption of various spices into the meat, potatoes or paneer and gives them the taste for which Kashmiri dishes are famous all over the world. The dishes are served with hot rice to the delight of the guests. The exotic taste of the wazwan dishes are much relished by both Kashmiris and non-Kashmiris alike.
However the wazas or cooks who create these finger licking dishes are now reducing in numbers. The low remunerations, long erratic hours and low social prestige are not attracting the sons into the hereditary trade. It is generally observed that the wazas are pampered till the dishes are cooked and thereafter are simply ignored. Many of the wazas take to drinking.
In the city of Srinagar, capital of J&K, there is a whole waza community, around 250-300 families staying in an area appropriately known as wazapora. Wazas have been staying here since more than three centuries now. But with increasing number of their children joining other respectable professions, the number of wazas is declining. It is not now common to see wazas who are mostly elder in age and have non Kashmiri young helpers from other States in their team.
Wazwan is a very old Kashmiri tradition which has made Kashmiri cooking and dishes famous all over the world. However like many other traditional arts it is also in danger of vanishing. If and when it happens will be a sad day for food gourmets in Kashmir and outside. Hopefully that day is still far off. Till then let us visit as many wazwans as possible to relish the really exotic preparations made with expertise by hereditary wazwans from their secret recipes.
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