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Winning hearts and minds through famed Kashmiri cuisine


The famed multicourse cuisine of scenic Kashmir Valley in India-administered Jammu and Kashmir – wazwan, known for soothing taste buds – is believed to have also turned political tables and at times upset global diplomacy with far-reaching consequences over the past 70 years.

In December 1955, when erstwhile Soviet Union leader Nikita Khrushchev visited India, his host then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru made sure that he visited Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir in the winter months.

The famed picture of Kashmir’s Prime Minister Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad thrusting goshtaba – a meatball prepared in yogurt with special spices – into the mouth of Khrushchev is understood to have turned high tables of global diplomacy in India’s favor. Upon his return, the Soviet Union started vetoing debates and resolutions related to Kashmir at the UN.

The UN Security Council had earlier adopted a unanimous resolution seeking to conduct a plebiscite in Jammu and Kashmir to allow people to decide whether the region will be part of India or Pakistan.

In his autobiography titled Aatish e Chinar (Chinar in Flames), Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, the popular leader who had been overthrown from premiership two years ago, writes that he saw Soviet planes carrying Khrushchev flying over the Kud prison, where he was lodged.

With his eyes glued to the sky, he at once presumed that the Soviet leader’s visit and the hospitality he would receive in Srinagar meant that the resolution of Kashmir will be now consigned to complications and international upmanship associated with superpower rivalry.

Former French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin’s statement on food diplomacy that “the table is the place where power has influence, where tensions are eased and where relations are built,” was put to test in April 1985 by then Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir Ghulam Mohammed Shah to save his government.

His alliance partner Congress had pulled the plug and asked Governor Jagmohan Malhotra to dismiss the government and appoint its leader as chief minister. Instead of putting up a show of strength in Srinagar, Shah headed to New Delhi along with master chefs and invited then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to a feast.

Wazwan saves government

He had invited some selected journalists also, who, after the dinner, asked Gandhi about the fate of the government in Srinagar. The prime minister, also the head of the ruling Congress party, said while he was still ravishing the wazwan dishes: “There is no plan to change the government in Srinagar or to conduct fresh elections. His party will continue to support the Shah as chief minister.”

The statement dampened the spirits of Congress party leaders in Kashmir and gave a lease of life to Shah’s government for one more year, thanks to the appetizing wazwan.

India’s first Prime Minister Nehru, a Kashmiri by origin, was also a great fan of this cuisine and used to often order it from Srinagar. In a lighter vein, many analysts believe that it was Nehru’s passion for wazwan that he did not allow Jammu and Kashmir to become part of Pakistan at the time of independence despite being a Muslim majority region.

Ace Mumbai-based writer and legal luminary Abdul Gafoor Noorani, who has authored several books on Kashmir, told Anadolu Agency that wazwan in fact has been a strong persuasion for him to continue researching and working on Kashmir.

“Early 60s, socialist leader Mirdulla Sarabai had hired me to extend legal help to jailed leader Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah in court. I visited him in Jammu Central Jail and then contested his case. But thereafter my connection with Kashmir remained through my belly ravishing gorgeous tastes of wazwan,” he said.

In 1975, when Abdullah became chief minister of the region, he would send a pack of wazwan to him whenever there was a direct flight from Srinagar to Mumbai, recalling the legal luminary. The award-winning octogenarian writer said he still gets his supply of wazwan by courier from a Kashmiri master chef, whose sons have set up a takeaway facility in the Indian capital New Delhi.

 

Dish control order

According to Ghulam Nabi Gowhar, a sessions judge in 1974, he had to set aside a government order restricting people to serve only five dishes of wazwan. Since its preparations cost pots of money and labor, the government wanted poor people not to spend money on preparing dishes to compete with the rich.

Gowhar in his order wrote that the wazwan feast is based on the meat of sheep and requires that every part of the animal be used in different dishes. Even the viscera form separate dishes and are served as starters. He said the restriction of five dishes meant that the host would have to throw away the rest of the meat. He instead recommended restricting the number of guests.

According to senior Kashmiri journalist Naseer Ganai, Chief Minister Ghulam Mohammad Sadiq in the late 60s, believed to be close to communists, considered wazwan a vestige of aristocrats of Kashmir and made serious attempts to phase out wazwan.

Quoting Kashmiri poet Zareef Ahmad Zareef, he said Sadiq wanted to buy all the utensils from the cooks to put them in a museum. He even gave them permits to drive minibuses. But the attempt failed as it was resented by the people.

Historians say the wazwan has traveled to Kashmir with Turkic immigrants from Central Asia who had been visiting and settling in the region in the 14th and 15th centuries. But making it more innovative and tastier, wholly rests with the local population. Waz is derived from the ancient Kashmiri and Sanskrit language word waja – to cook. The chef is called waza, which is derived from Persian aashpaz, meaning special cook.

Wazwan dishes require fresh meat. At times the chef himself inspects the live sheep to certify if it is fit for the cuisine. Since it needs a lot of labor and an assortment of spices, it becomes uneconomical to serve authentic wazwan in restaurants. Between 10-36 dishes are cooked overnight under the supervision of the master chef in special nickel-plated copper vessels known as daegs.

Social statement to break barriers

Social scientists maintain that wazwan is not an assortment of dishes alone, but since it is served on a plate, where four people sit across to eat together, it is a social statement to break the caste and class stranglehold. Islam came to Kashmir just 700 years ago by preachers, who preached against the caste system and propagated equality and fraternity. Before the advent of Islam, an upper-caste could not sit with a lower-caste person. To eat from the same plate was out of the question.

The guests sit in a row, making a group of four to share a plate that has rice and as starters seekh kababs (minced meat roasted on skewers over hot coal), tabakh maaz (glossy lamb ribs cooked in milk and then fried in clarified butter), a daeni phoul (a large mutton piece), and two halves or two whole chicken sprinkled with chopped coriander and melon seeds, a stew made with lamb stomach.

Then series of dishes start coming one by one to name a few like rista (meatballs in red gravy), rogan josh or red lamb curry, dhaniwal korma (mutton cooked in a lot of coriander), marchhwangan korma (fiery hot mutton cooked with Kashmiri red chilli), aab gosht (sheep ribs cooked in a milk-based gravy and flavored with green cardamoms and saffron) punctuated by an assortment of chutneys – spicy condiments made up of walnuts and almonds. The final dish, before the sweats, is gushtaba – big white meatball which puts a full stop to the meat dishes.
 

Cultural identity

Despite possessing world-class grazing grounds, Kashmir imports 30 million kilograms of mutton every year, mostly from the Indian province of Rajasthan. Since most of the grazing grounds are just near the Line of Control (LoC) that divides the region into India- and Pakistan-controlled areas, they are heavily militarized to take any economic benefit out of them.

Last year, when Indian film producer Vivek Agnihotri announced to change the course of wazwan and make it wholly vegetarian to Indianize it, it created consternation locally and was seen as an attempt to dilute the cultural identity of Kashmir. “Nobody in Kashmir knows how to cook vegetarian wazwan. I have come here to change it,” he wrote on Twitter.

Like the Kashmiri language, dress, and literature, wazwan is also an integral part of the region, which needs to be preserved, protected, and used in gastrodiplomacy to reach high political tables.


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