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Dinner at my friend Mushtaq’s house is always a grand affair and a regular feature of every trip I have ever made to Srinagar. What typically follows a bumpy half-hour ride on the Srinagar-Ganderbal highway is a four-course dinner of goshtaba, yakhni, rogan josh and rista. Kashmiris pride themselves on their impeccable hosting skills.

It was during one such dinner on a cold January night that I first got to hear of harissa. It is a slow-cooked dish of minced lamb eaten at breakfast. It is a winter delicacy, available only during the six weeks of chillai kalan (the harshest winter period from 20 December to January end), the chillai khurd (the 20-day-long period that follows) and the subsequent 10-day phase of chillai bacha that marks the end of the cold season. “It has kept Kashmiris warm for centuries," says Mushtaq.

He adds that for the average Kashmiri, whose everyday breakfast normally means fresh bread from the local bakery and a cup of noon chai (salt tea), a plate of harissa is still an affordable winter luxury. This simple lamb-spice concoction hits the spot on the coldest days and a plate of harissa with Kashmiri naan costs 140-180.

One day Mushtaq picks me up from my hotel at the ungodly hour of 5am. The temperature is around 2 degrees Celsius. It is a grey morning and the narrow streets of Srinagar’s old city are wet from last night’s snow. A lone shop is ready for business, tucked between a long line of closed shutters. It is a tiny outlet that one could easily have missed, but for a group of men in pherans standing outside. As Mushtaq brings his car to a halt opposite the shop, a mouth-watering smell wafts over. The shop has no name and a middle-aged man, presumably the establishment’s proprietor, is bent over a huge earthen pot. I cross the street and join the small crowd of patrons. The man carefully inspects the simmering contents of the pot, stirs it with a long wooden spoon, and, with a wave of finality that would befit an orchestra conductor, adds some more spices into its cavernous depths. He then turns towards the silent crowd, a smile on his face, and says, “Your harissa is ready."

Mushtaq says the man is Zahoor Ahmed, a fourth generation owner of the harissa outlet. It is one of the few in old Srinagar that still serve the traditional delicacy. From December-February, Ahmed’s shop opens at 4, on the dot, every morning.

According to Ahmed, a good harissa entails a meticulous mincing of deboned mutton, mixed with local rice, fennel seeds, cinnamon, cardamom and salt. It is then slow-cooked overnight in huge earthenware vessels.

Ahmed says the harissa is a variant of al harees—a Middle Eastern delicacy. The difference is that instead of rice, the meat is cooked with wheat and uses a different selection of spices. The Mughals brought the delicacy to Kashmir when they first came here in the 16th century, and over the years it evolved into the present-day harissa.

Soon more people start arriving at the shop, some have come from as far as Budgam and Pulwama districts, navigating snow-covered roads. Ahmed’s two assistants get busy filling their tiffin carriers and copper plates with generous servings of the steaming preparation. One such patron is Majid Alam, who has been eating here for the last 40 years. Today, he is here to collect a large order—5kg of harissa for his daughter in Baramulla.

I find myself a small table with Mushtaq. Seated on an elevated stone platform, Ahmed reaches into the contents of the steaming pot and scoops out a helping of harissa, garnishes it with a dose of flaming hot oil, and serves it with a naan. The meat melts into the rice and the distinctive taste of cardamom and cinnamon leaves a smoky trail on my tongue. Ahmed refills my plate a second time and I wipe it clean in an instant. “I shouldn’t allow you a third plate," he warns me with a smile as he goes on to recount a popular legend about an 18th century governor of Kashmir whose overindulgence in harissa resulted in his untimely death!

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