This is an account of food that we had at different places in Kashmir during our trip & our observations about food & beverages habits in general in the region.
Read our Kashmir travelogues here & enjoy the YUMM pictures:
In a nutshell:
- Breads are not made at homes but bought from neighborhood bakeries. Breads are not eaten with major meals but as snacks / for breakfast.
- Lipton Chai (CTC tea cooked with milk & sugar), Nun Chai (salted tea) & Kehwa are regular beverages.
- Cereal during main meals is rice
- The consumption of vegetables is less as compared to many other places in India. Dried vegetables are eaten during extreme cold months of winter
- Gravies are thin, very flavourful, no floating oil, no masalas on the face – contrary to thick, floating oil gravies served in Kashmiri restaurants of Delhi NCR.
- Daily food habit – What an average Srinagar person eats in his/her main meals (gathered info by asking around).
- Paneer is made in small batches at homes & sold in neighborhood shops.
- Meat is always sheep, not goat. Chicken is relatively less popular than lamb.
- Wazwan is a multi-course meal prepared from different parts of an animal, cooked by professional chefs called Wazas, commissioned by hosts of large gatherings.
- Dry fruits – Walnuts are famous here, the almonds are different & really good, we tried ziristh berries for the first time & we got to eat a heart-shaped nut that grows in the wild. The seed is of a fruit called Chatoor’i, it’s very sour & green in colour. The nut is called “hañi” ( हणि).
- Popular street foods we came across were pakoras (nadru, dal, fish etc), halwa poori, kababs, fried fish & meats, masala Lavasa.
- Jalebis are had cold. They seemed to have rice powder to add crispiness.
Short Description – in case u are in a hurry:
Breads are not made at homes. They are bought from the neighborhood shop everyday. This is similar to the culture in Iran & other Middle East countries, the western world, where people buy breads from the market – few bake their own breads in today’s date. Kashmir got bakery culture from Middle East traders of silk route.
This ‘buying the bread’ culture is contrary to the North & Central India Hindi speaking belt, where breads (roti) are always made at home. In the traditional set up, in the Hindi speaking belt, breads are made just before the meal (so that it is hot & has the best texture).
Unlike in the Hindi speaking belt of North India, Breads are not eaten in Kashmir during main meals like lunch or dinner. In Kashmir, breads are eaten during small meals or as a snack – breakfast, evening, small eats during the day & evening.
There are different kinds of breads that are eaten at different times of the day. Some are similar to our general understanding of Western breads, some are like naans & kulchas & some others are like cookies.
We saw different kinds of bakeries- some functioning like they used to do centuries back, some have modernized. Yet most still rely on a Firewood oven – Wicker wood or peach wood.
In the morning, men, women, children would reach their local bakery, sit on the floor (in many cases), in a queue, place there order, get the hot bread directly from the oven & take it for their family to have breakfast together.
We also realized that people interact socially while waiting for their breads.
Beverages – Tea / Chai
Breads are usually had with tea. In Kashmir, there are two kinds of tea – Lipton Chai & Nun Chai. Kehwa of course is a quintessential Kashmiri drink, which we will elaborate later in the post.
CTC tea cooked with milk & sugar is referred to lipton chai in local parlance.
Nun Chai is tea leaves cooked with milk (in a complicated, multi layered process) & baking soda & salt added to it. Salt is called nun (pronounced same as ‘noon’). Nun chai is pink in colour.
This is how Nun chai is made, we were told:
Boil water & tea leaves, till water becomes one third. Add another 2/3 water & boil till liquid is half. Add milk & salt.
Beverages – Kehwa
Kehwa is a warm, aromatic sweetened drink, mostly with tea leaves in it. Kehwa is widely consumed in Kashmir & is considered to be an influence of Persian culture. It initially started as a drink like ‘kadha’ – hot water with spices, to keep the body warm. Examples of spices added to Kehwa are – Cinnamon, cardamom, dried ginger powder, clove, black pepper etc. Some people add dried rose petals. What we realized during this trip was that Kehwa is not a uniform drink made in the same way everywhere – Kehwa is made differently for different occasions in the same family & different families have different ways of making Kehwa.
Some add tea leaves, some don’t add tea leaves. Infact, tea cultivation started in India in mid 1850s. Kehwa has been in Kashmir for way longer than that.
Main course cereal was almost always rice.
People still use their fingers to eat rice (contrary to many north Indian families residing in urban areas, who use spoon to eat rice). Eating rice using fingers is a habit similar to people in East, south or west of India.
Most of the rice we had in Kashmir, at people’s homes or in restaurants run by JKTDC, were short / medium length, mild aromatic & would tend to stick to each other.
Curries & Gravies:
All the gravies we had in the 9 day trip were super thin (almost watery), full of flavours of meat & spices. The gravies had no floating oil on top, no spices on the face – contrary to the food sold as Kashmiri food in Delhi NCR.
Daily food habit – Main meals
We were chatting with our trip leader Usman & he mentioned that the average person among his friends & relatives have rice, saag, vegetables daily. Paneer or rajma is had once a week. About 3 times a week lamb meat is eaten. Chicken is sometimes had.
Bulbul shah was the first Sufi Islamic preacher from Suhrawardi order, who converted the then king Rinchan to Islam. Thereafter many people from the kingdom were also converted. The King commissioned a Shrine for subjects to meet the sufi saints. They used to run large scale lankars (langars) to feed the poor, with cooks from Persia. This, we heard, was the beginning of the tradition of wazwan.
For the uninitiated, Wazwan is a multi-course meal prepared from different parts of an animal.
Of the different dishes in Wazwan, we got to know this –
Tabak maaz chefs initially from Central Asia, Samarkand. Kebabs & rishta chefs came from Persia.
In the Kashmiri language, waz means ‘cook’ or ‘cooking’ and wan means ‘shop’. Most of the 36 items on wazwan are meat based dishes & the rest are vegetarian. The meal was traditionally cooked in a series of wood fire stoves (built from mud), under the supervision of a master chef called a wouste waza.
Wazwan is organized in family functions, office get togethers & almost all traditional get togethers. The waza & his team are commissioned by the host of the get together. The wazas travel to the spot with their team, set up the kitchen in eth open or any clear covered space. They cook the food & serve it too. Once the function is over, they move to another location (next booking).
We saw use of LPG (& not wood) in both the places we saw wazwan making in process.
Sheep meat is the only meat eaten. Goat meat is rarely had.
Unlike most other Indian cuisines, there is a culture of eating meatballs – no additional ingredients mixed. Just meat – not minced, but pounded with a wooden hammer, till it becomes a certain consistency.
Guests are seated in groups of four and share the meal out of a large copper plate called the traem. Before a meal begins & after a meal is over, a ritual washing of hands is done in a portable basin called the Taash, water is poured from a jug called Nuaer, which is taken around by attendants.
Shallots used in wazwan are called Pran in Kashmir. They are different from the regular onions grown in rest of India.
The Traem plating is overseen by the waza himself. The traem is first heaped with rice, then the circular heap of rice is quartered by two seekh kababs placed perpendicular to each other. Four scoops of methi maaz, (sheep innards flavored with a spice mixture containing dried fenugreek (methi) leaves) are served in the four quarter circle areas of rice. Two tabakh maaz (twice-cooked lamb ribs, initially braised with ground spices, then browned in ghee), one safed kokur (chicken in white gravy), one zafran kokur (chicken in saffron gravy), is also served in the remaining area. The chutneys are served separately.
As the meal progresses, more dishes are served by the Waza’s helpers. Examples — tabakh maaz, rishta (meatballs in a red, paprika-saffron-fennel spice flavoured gravy), rogan josh, daniwal korma (lamb roasted with yoghurt, spices and onion puree, topped with coriander leaves), aab gosh (lamb chunks cooked with a fennel-based spice mixture, cardamom and partially evaporated milk), marchhwangan korma (chicken legs/thighs cooked in a spicy browned-onion sauce) and gushtaba (meatballs cooked in a spicy yoghurt gravy).
After that, desserts are served. In winters, the dessert can be a hot sweet dish and in summers, it is usually something cold.
We heard unanimously from different people at different points in time that the food served at a wazwan is huge portion & difficult to finish. We got to know that nowadays, at many functions, people are given polythene packets to carry food that they have taken on the plate but are unable to finish.
Paneer was fabulous, wherever we had. We got to know the reason – paneer is made in small batches at homes & sold in neighbourhood shops. They are much softer & better than the disgusting, mass produced, industrial paneer sold in most markets of Delhi NCR.
In 3 months of extreme winters, many parts of Kashmir (used to & still) get cut off by road. Movement of vegetables becomes impossible. So there has been a culture of drying sliced vegetables, saag in summer & storing them in jars, to be used in winters.
Kashmir is well known for its walnuts.
The almonds that we bought from Srinagar market were very different than the uniform looking, flat almonds found in markets of delhi NCR. The almonds of Srinagar were non uniform in size & shape, were bulky but short, had high oil content & had a distinct flavour.
We also got to know of & tried a kind of local berry called Ziristh.
We were really amazed to see a nut that is found in forests (not farmed) that looks like a heart!!! It’s the seed is of a fruit called Chatoor’i, it’s very sour & green in colour. The nut is called “hañi” ( हणि). Thanks to our friend Aamir, from Gurez, who got this nut for us from his forest trek.
Detailed description – in case you have the time to enjoy reading:
In the section below, you will read about the food & beverage experiences we had during the trip
Hakim jan Mohammad’s house.
Hakim jan trades in pashmina. A part of his house is also a showroom. On one of the guest rooms on the ground floor, we sat on the floor & enjoyed a traditional lunch.
A long sheet of cloth was laid on the wall to wall carpeted floor. The food items were placed on it in traditional hand-crafted copper vessels with a tin coating.
We sat around the cloth & ate from the vessel called traem or trame.
Paneer tamatar was outstanding. Local paneer made in small batches at a neighbourhood shop. Super soft & really nice. The gravy celebrated tomatoes beautifully.
The lamb yakhni had a super thin, watery, yet very flavourful gravy with a curd base. The flavours of curd, meat & spices mingled very well. The meat pieces were distinctly different in terms of flavour from the goat meat we are used to eating in delhi NCR. The meat had the right texture & was great to taste.
Really loved this meal. The second best meal in our trip.
Kulfi at Saraf Kadal area – Usman bhai took us to this young boy selling kulfi. He has made these at home & had got it here in a traditional copper vessel. The kulfi was fabulous. He served it as it is, with falooda.
We stopped at a Local bakery at a place called Deethu, Anantnag district.
Baker – Mohammad Yousuf bhatt
He was baking a Bread named kulcha that can last 15 days. He was baking this batch, on order, for a pregnant lady. She will store & eat this bread during her pregnancy. Normal bread has vegetable oil. This one is made from warqa ghee (more expensive than other ghee) & has poppy seed on top.
We tried a food item called Harissa – made from pounded meat. This is usually served in the 6 winter months (October to march). There are few shops in Srinagar that open only for these 6 months to serve a single item – harissa.
We got to know that the cooking is a 14 hours process.
We tried a dish called masala Lavasa – street food outside Jamia Masjid Srinagar. It was a thin roti called kulcha with chickpea, chutneys & dahi. Served in the form of a roll. The orange mooli Chutney was a game changer.
We walked into Farooq Ahmed’s tea stall, at Saraf kadal, Srinagar. It was a tea house. Tables & benches on both sides, baked items kept for having along with tea. Tea was being made as per order. Loved the tea here – chai.
Among the baked items were
Kandi kulcha – made from maida, ghee, poppy seeds. It was sweet in taste.
Hillpop- a heart shaped bread, made from maida, ghee, sugar.
We loved the taste of the Cream roll, apart from the fact that it rekindled childhood memories.
Outside the shrine of Shah Hamdan, we tried machli fry. The cart owner told us that this was Jhelum fish bought only if live (at the time of buying), deep fried with batter containing rice powder & other ingredients. It tasted very different than the besan / dal coated pakodas.
At the floating market we had lovely kehwa, from a genius salesperson cum beverage maker – Mushtaq bhai. He said ‘mera kehwa hai Super se bhi upar’.
We went to Rainawadi kandurwaen (bakery). The owner’s ancestors were from Afghanistan.
We tried a Lavasa, straight out of the oven – thin, crisp & tasted nice with addition of some amul butter.
A bread called Tschot was also made in front of us & served. The marks on the bread were made by pressing the dough with finger, before putting it in the tandoor.
Haaq is a popular saag eaten all over Kashmir. Such is the love for this saag that we saw someone growing haaq in a farm, in a centrally located neighbourhood.
While at Dawar, Gurez, we went for a morning walk & stopped by a Bread shop. The shop had no signboard. The owner instantly started chatting with us, while working on bread making. He just refused to take money when we asked for 3 freshly baked breads. He said ‘you have come first time & we had a nice conversation. So, you are my guest. He also gave us 3 cookies to taste. We were speechless at his warmth & hospitality.
We went to another bakery in Dawar that was baking the same tsot bread in a traditional set up
Beef kababs at Dawar Gurez. It was evening & we saw a big crowd at a food cart, in an otherwise deserted street. A bunch of ladies were getting food packed, some boys were eating kababs. The gentleman making the kababs was using an electric fan to keep the coal fire burning high. We tasted some & liked it. Reordered. Then we got yo know that he has another variety – one with meat & fat. We tried that too. Liked the latter ever better. Both were very good to taste. The latter had a better texture. Both were slightly chewy though.
We stopped by at Sangam hotel tea shop, Gurez. We started chatting with the owner of this 10 year old tea shop, Gulam Qader ji, a member of the Dardi tribe. He speaks the Dardi language ‘Sheena’ at home & spoke with us in good hindi (less accent than most Kashmiri).
He works & lives in Gurez for 9 months & in moves back to his Srinagar house in the 3 extreme winter months.
We loved the nun cha he made & served. Also tried the Lipton chai next day.
Village hotel, Bodogam village, gurez
Bodogam is a long 2 hours drive though a bad road to the north, from Dawar, Gurez. The drive was scenic & we stopped innumerable times to take pictures & to soak in the scenery.
We had called the restaurant about an hour before we reached but they did not prepare any food. They said that they wanted people to reach & place order (as in the past they had situations where people ordered on phone & did not turn up.
After we reached, we discussed items that they can serve. They mentioned some dishes from the wazwan. We said we want home like food, not restaurant like. So this is what they served:
Rice was the staple. Loved the home made Chutney that came with it.
Rajma – This dish had a thin gravy & it had different sizes of beans, not sorted. The beans had a bite that was enjoyable. The gravy was flavourful (spices), it was hot to taste & really enjoyable. Rate it 4.25/5
Haaq saag was the show stopper – it was juicy, it was great to taste & it had a hot aftertaste. Rate it 4.5/5
Chicken Curry – The chicken was probably first deep fried & then cooked into a curry of thin gravy, that was very good to taste, very flavorful & slightly hot. Loved every bit of the gravy. We had this kind of chicken curry in many places in Kashmir. The texture of the chicken seemed dry & fibrous to us. Would rate the gravy 4.5/5, rat ethe chicken 2.5/5. Overall rating of the dish 3.5/5
They took about 1 hour to prepare the food on order – everything was made from scratch.
The owner cum Chef said ‘we tried out best’ in English when we told we loved the food
Ilahibag fish fry & chicken kabab – This was a food cart in Ilahibag area odf Srinagar, where a boy was selling fish fry, kababs & meat fries. He had marinated / semi processed fish & kababs & he was deep frying this on receiving the order. The kababs were being served with two fabulous chutneys that completely changed the game. The chutneys gave character to the simple fried items.
In Srinagar, we stayed at a houseboat named Shajahan, on Nigeen lake. Zubair was the caretaker here. See more pictures of the houseboat here – houseboat.
We were very pleasantly surprised to have very good home like food in the houseboat. Zubair told us that the food had been cooked at someone’s house nearby.
The paneer in the paneer curry was simply outstanding (made by home based paneer makers in small batches). The paneer was super soft & had good flavours of paneer. The curry was a simple makhni gravy & very good. Rate the paneer 4.95/5 & the gravy 4/5. Overall rating averages out to 4.5/5
Mutton Kanti is a kabab sautéed with onions & other spices. The Seekh kabab came from a waza, like the waza workshop we went to in Srinagar (see part 1).
Rate the Kababs 4/5
Rate the cooking 4.25/5
Aloo jeera with beans had a thin gravy. It was flavourful. There was no oil floating in the curry. The aloo had a nice bite but the beans had lost crunch. Rate the dish 4/5
The Dal was so simple & was just mind blowing good. We enjoyed it with local thick rice. Rate it 4.75/5.
Adil Hussain Koka’s house, Village Thimran, Chhatpal, Anantnag
We had lunch at Adil’s home after a long village walk. Adil is a farmer by profession & also raises sheep. Read more details here: Part 2
All food was cooked by Adil’s sister with help from her two bhabis.
We had souchal saag, which is not farmed, but foraged from the jungle. We were amazed at the taste of the saag. Coarse, outstanding to taste, perfectly cooked. Priceless experience.
We then had Rajma grown in Adil’s own field!! The rajma were different in size & shape – because unlike in supermarkets, this was not separated as per size. The rajma had a lovely bote. The gravy was thin & everything was just too good. Enjoyed this with rice.
Then we had Patza curry (Paya / trotters) of sheep. Wow. Intense flavours of spices & lamb bone marrow, in a thin gravy. Mind blowing good everything. Undoubtedly this was the best meal in our trip.
The trip was overall a culinary delight…… thanks to our travel consultant vana safaris & their local business partners, kashmir walks, STR adventures
Individual reviews of restaurants we ate at, coming up soon –