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The intricacies of Kashmiri Wazwan


While wedding guests sit on the thick woolen carpets enjoying the festivities, a clan of seasoned cooks are rhythmically working on a meat-forward feast in the courtyard. They are cooking Wazwan, an elaborate meal from North India’s Kashmir.

The meat-rich diet was always steeped in the culinary landscape of Kashmir owing to the snow-laden mountains challenging vegetation cultivation. However, the evolution of Kashmiri cuisine can be linked to many influences: Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Turks, Greeks, Persians and various Central Asian rulers and traders who lived there or travelled the ancient Silk Route have shaped Kashmiri cuisine. In doing this, they have conjured a Mosaic of culture, beautiful in distortion with its cracks strikingly apparent. Amongst constant conflicts, Kashmiri food did not just prevail but evolved, inculcating the flavours of its sojourned visitors.

Sath Syen Trami by Sarposh

Azmat Ali Mir, owner of Sarposh, a restaurant in Bangalore devoted to authentic Kashmiri gastronomic experiences, provides insight into the elaborateness of the Kashmiri Wazwan (‘waz’ translates to cook and ‘wan’ means shop). According to her, while the Mongol emperor Timur is commonly attributed to bringing the Wazas from the Samarkand Valley, there is no way to pinpoint the origin of Wazwan. Azmat, born and raised in Kashmir, believes the essence of Wazwan can be attributed to two things: the nose-to-tail fashion of cooking and the community eating concept revered by Kashmiris, with the latter especially applying to Muslim communities.

While Wazwan is commonly associated with celebration, it appears in any event that brings people together, including funerals. The number of dishes served in a Wazwan depends on the number of guests. While a celebratory meal for a wedding can feature up to 72 dishes, a Wazwan served at a funeral usually has a minimum of seven dishes. Various nuances surround the majestic Wazwan; indigenous ingredients, elaborate prepping, set up, service and the way of eating it come with their methods and processes.

A Waza Heddar - a vegetarian dish that has been added to Wazwan as diets have changed.

Ingredients

The Wazwan is a lamb-heavy meal. Honouring the concept of Halal, only freshly slaughtered lamb is used, the carcass of which is fully utilised leaving only the head and trotters behind.

The dishes served in Wazwan feature local ingredients that lend an unparalleled taste. Although onions and tomatoes are extensively used in Indian cooking, they make no appearance here. Instead, Praan, the Kashmiri shallots are the preferred allium.

“They are the life of Wazwan,” Azmat says.

While the long-grained Basmati rice reigns supreme in North India, a special short-grain variety called Mushk Budiji takes centre stage in Wazwan.

A Waza Kokur from Sarposh, part of the larger Wazwan meal.

Azmat also notes that, although saffron is a staple in Kashmiri cuisine, it is the Kashmiri Mawal (coxcomb flower) that imparts a deep red colour to the dishes. Similarly, while mustard oil is preferred for home-cooked food, an authentic Wazwan meal can only be cooked with ghee. Red Kashmiri chillies, shahi jeera (caraway seeds), a special variety of turmeric, black and green cardamom, clove, cinnamon and pepper are also used in these dishes.

The prep

When it comes to planning a wedding, the first call goes to the Waza. The Wazas are skilful cooks; masterminds who orchestrate the entire cooking process. They have mastered the art of cooking this feast since the 15th century, with knowledge passed down through generations and, according to locals, wedding dates are set based on the availability of the family Waza. While each family has their own designated Waza, these maestros usually hold a rolodex of around 200 clients.

The Waza typically arrives a day before the event, but the groundwork begins weeks in advance. This process is a cultural spectacle: A group of women gather to clean rice and Praan, while singing traditional songs that add a melodic rhythm to their work.

Setup

Once the Waza enters the house, the kitchen is closed and the Waza and his cooks take over the cooking duties. A traditional Wazwan is cooked over a wood fire made from chopped fruit trees. Logs of wood are lined up in the courtyard, and several units of deg (copper utensils) are mounted on top. Apprentices under the Waza are tasked with jobs, including chopping the meat, portioning it, and pounding it until it reaches the desired texture, resulting in melt-in-the-mouth meatballs for rista and gushtaba.

Gushtaba meatballs by Sarposh. Image: Supplied

Each dish in the Wazwan has a distinct flavour and texture. Hence it is essential to marinate them with the right blend of spices and herbs, a process that can take several hours or overnight. Separate stock and gravies are made for each dish. The Vasta Waza (head Waza) oversees the entire cooking process, keeping his eyes on roughly 15 to 20 degs, guiding apprentices on controlling the flames, selecting the ingredients and determining cooking times.

Service

During a Wazwan, status and class distinctions dissolve. People share a communal meal where everyone begins and concludes together, breaking bread side by side.

In a spacious room, guests are seated on the floor and a Dastarkhwan (a long tablecloth) is laid out. A large copper plate called Trami is placed on top of the cloth. Shared by four people, each person holds a particular quadrant on the plate. “When it comes to serving the various dishes, the order is set in stone,” Azmat narrates.

At the centre of the plate sits a mountain of rice. Tabak maaz (fried lamb ribs), seekh kebabs (minced meat grilled on a skewer) and methi maaz (a stew made with lamb stomach) are served first. These are followed by rista (mutton meatballs in red and velvety saffron-based gravy), rogan gosh, daniphol (lamb shanks cooked in Kashmiri spices), aab gosht (lamb cooked in a milk-based gravy) and other dishes. As a rule, the meal must end with gushtaba (mutton meatballs cooked in yoghurt and mint-based gravy).

Aab Gosht by Sarposh.

While originally the Wazwan was a lamb-centric meal, over the last few years, chicken and vegetarian dishes have been added: Waza Heddar (mushroom), Waza Palak (spinach) and Ruwangan Tchama (paneer in a tomato gravy) are popular vegetarian options.

Recent developments

Azmat highlights one of the most significant changes in the past three decades: takeaway containers.

Previously, feasts led to excess food, with some guests consuming only gravy and rice then discreetly using plastic bags to carry meat home for their families. This practice was once considered shameful. However, this approach helps curb food wastage, as around 2.5 kg of food typically served per person, with any leftovers often ending up in landfills. Over time, taking leftovers home was encouraged and now, takeaway bags are provided to prevent waste.

Additionally, guests are now provided with napkins, water and other pieces based on the requests from the host.

A Trami (copper plate) from Sarposh set out for four people.

Authentic Wazwan

An authentic Wazwan can only truly be savoured at special events, where the food is cooked over firewood under the watchful eye of a skilled Waza. While restaurants like Sarposh come tantalizingly close, replicating this experience within their walls is challenging, especially since firewood cooking isn’t feasible in a restaurant.

Another major hurdle is the cost. When you organise a Wazwan for a special occasion, more than half the budget is set aside for food. Essential ingredients like Praan, available only once a year and difficult to source, drive up the price. Mushk Budiji and ghee, crucial to the authenticity of Wazwan, also come with a hefty price tag.

If you’re planning a trip to Kashmir, don’t miss the chance to indulge in this unique culinary tradition.

Banner image: Sath Syen Trami by Sarposh

- Asia Media Centre