It may be 40-plus degrees in Delhi, but as I write this in Srinagar, I’m shivering in the cold of a spring evening. I am on the extensive lawns of The Lalit Grand Palace, arguably one of the most picturesque spots in the valley. I am talking to the late Lalit Suri’s wazas (cooks), Ghulam Rasool and his brother Fayaz Ahmed, who have donned the mantle of corporate Kashmiri cooks of The Lalit group of hotels. No matter what it appears to be from the outside, all wazwans are not equal; neither are all wazas equally gifted. At the risk of being excommunicated from the Reshi clan, I must say that Rasool and Ahmed are streets ahead of our own family waza. But let me begin at the beginning.
Prelude: Preparation for a traditional Kashmiri wazwan. Aditya Swami / Indiapicture
Anyone in Kashmir who has ever had a wedding or celebration in the family, which is to say virtually every family, needs to have their own waza. Essentially caterers who have their own set of copper cooking vessels and a loosely held team of assistants, wazas are the male members of a community of cooks who are responsible for Kashmir’s well-known wazwan, a multi-course feast. Each waza—and there are around 200 of them in Srinagar city, by Rasool’s reckoning—has a couple of hundred customers. If that sounds excessive, remember that not all of them will require a waza’s services every year. Engagements, weddings, successful completion of the Haj pilgrimage, corporate conferences, office picnics—there can be many reasons to have a wazwan.
You do hear of marriages breaking, but seldom in Kashmir does one hear of a waza and his customer parting ways! In fact, when the bride and groom’s families are in talks about the date of the wedding, the first person to be contacted is the family waza. Rasool doesn’t know how the wazwan came to Kashmir, but it certainly is the most efficient way of using an entire sheep. The shanks go to make dhani phol, organ meats combine in the inspired methi maaz, shoulder is used in aab gosht, and so on.
Much like a thali meal or the Japanese kaiseki, you cannot omit certain dishes in a wazwan just because you feel like it, though you can add to the minimum number of dishes: Rasool claims to make lamb with raisins and lamb with almond paste, two things I have neither tasted nor heard of in my 18 years of being married to a Kashmiri.
In today’s health-conscious world, the wazwan may have to shape up or ship out. Already, in the last few years, Rasool’s customers have been exhorting him to use less oil and chillies though, as he says with a conspiratorial look, it is a tightrope walk balancing individual requirements with a reputation for cooking tasty food. Economic progress in Kashmir has meant that wazwan s are now held at the drop of a hat. The only trouble is that each one has no more than two vegetarian dishes.
One identifiably Iranian ingredient in a wazwan is zeresht (or zereshk), a red, sour dried berry that Iranians use in pulao and Kashmiris use in chutney. Available in Iranian stores in Mumbai and Oriental grocers in London, New York and wherever there is an Iranian community, you can simply substitute them with raisins.
½ inch stick of cinnamon
A pinch of black pepper
½ cup warm water in which 25g tamarind has been soaked
Salt to taste
Wash the zeresht in several changes of warm water until all traces of grit are removed. Soak for 15 minutes in warm water till they are soft and pliable. In a stone mortar and pestle or food processor, add all the ingredients and pulse until well blended, using the tamarind water to get the desired consistency of the chutney.
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