Kashmiri food is a reflection of the many influences that have gripped the land over centuries, it provides unique flavors and preparations that stand out in the diverse palate of Indian cuisines. Although mostly loved for the variety of scrumptious, rich meat delicacies Kashmiri cuisine offers, there are many more elements of food that make the wholesome, nutritious, and locally produced diet.
Popular Traditional Kashmiri Food Dishes
Fruits and Dry Fruits
Kashmir was an important passage of the Silk route which ushered trade of spices from all over the world and also provided a passage for Indian spices to travel outside. The salubrious summers of Kashmir, its high altitude, and rich fertile soil make it a paradise for an array of fruits, dry fruits, and spices.
Hundreds of varieties of delicious, sweet and tart apples, juicy pears (including famous Nakh and Bagogasha varieties), apricots, plums, peaches, cherries, crab-apples, loquats, chestnuts, nectarines, quinces, grapes, mulberries of both ‘alba’ and luscious black-royal varieties, strawberries, cranberries, raspberries, blackberries and many other wild-grown berries that grow in abundance in the Valley.
Along with fruits- dry fruits like walnuts and almonds are also grown plenty and their unique superior quality makes them a sought-after export commodity.
The delicate saffron grows robustly in the precise natural environment and finds its way to Kashmiri food. Plenty of local fishes, poultry, sheep, goat, game birds, ducks, and geese make a part of the diet of Kashmiris, who are mostly non-vegetarian. The ample varieties of fruits, vegetables, dry fruits, spices, and meats that are found in Kashmir all infused in the food, developing hundreds of exquisite dishes.
These include both vegetarian and meat dishes ranging from spicy, sweet, sour, fragrant in taste and soft, crunchy, chewy in textures. Different dishes are prepared adapting to the different seasons and produce and food is central to all celebrations- like marriages and festivals. This detailed and time-consuming cuisine has given rise to a class of expert cooks and chefs that master this style of cooking.
Kashmiri beverages too are unique preparations of tea, and milk infused with dry fruits and spices. Tea is consumed along with breakfast, evening snacks or after meals. Kahwa is an exotic tea traditionally consumed along with breakfast and is a blend of green tea leaves, saffron, cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves. Sometimes it is made richer and garnished with flaked almonds, walnuts, and dried fruits like cherries and apricots.
Kahwa is sometimes also consumed after dinner and is known to have antioxidant, digestive, and warming properties that help in bearing the cold winters. Another unique beverage is the pink coloured noon-chai. Whereas in most parts of the country, chai, or tea with milk is served with sugar, noon chai, as the name suggests, uses salt to season the tea and make for a delicious rare blend.
Kashmiris love to drink noon chai because it’s both refreshing in the heat and helps resist the cold in winter. It is known to prevent heartburn, bloating and aids in reducing stress. It is a brew of gunpowder tea (green tea leaves rolled into small balls), milk, sea salt, and baking soda and sometimes may even be spiced with cinnamon, star anise, green cardamoms and topped with pistachios.
Rice and Breads
Although rice is a staple through Kashmir, there is a unique assortment of freshly baked breads that this paradise offers. The valley is dotted with many bakeries that open shop early morning to serve warm fresh breads that are consumed in breakfast or relished as snacks. The raging street food culture of Kashmir has both meat and vegetarian delicacies, sweet and savoury treats, and most of them are accompanied by different locally produced breads.
Girda is a breakfast bread eaten for breakfast coupled with a steaming cup of kahwa, the famous street food Masala Tchot made from a spicy chickpea spread, yogurt and red chutney wrapped in lavash bread, the unique thin fried Paratha paired with steaming hot Halwa and other breads are just some of the different ways in which breads are incorporated in the Kashmiri cuisine.
Kashmir has a vibrant bakery culture that not only bake breads like Kandur, Girda, Ghyev Czhot, Chochwor, Bakarkhani, Shirmal but make some delicious cakes and fudges with locally produced dry fruits and honey.
There are predominantly two styles of cooking or preparing food in Kashmir which have several overlaps. Kashmiri Muslim style of cooking uses fewer Masale or spices but use onions, Garlic, and Pran or shallots generously in their meat and vegetarian preparations. Kashmiri Pandits on the other hand, don’t use onion, garlic, and shallots in their traditional style of cooking. Their preparations are spiced with Asafoetida or Hing, Dry Ginger Powder, Kashmiri Red Chillies, Yoghurt, and whole spices.
Perhaps the most famed food ritual from Kashmir is the Wazwan, Kashmir’s most formal and elaborate meal. It is performed like a ceremony with each dish playing an important ritual that is performed as a community. A complete Wazwan course is a laborious effort of hours of planning, preparing, and cooking the meal; the entire meal is designed keeping in mind large gatherings hence the heat and salt content are milder than other Kashmiri food items.
A typical Wazwan experience includes table settings for groups of 4, set out on the floor where different dishes are served and enjoyed from a common plate. Each delicacy is served in a particular order, slowly increasing the complexity of flavours, aromas, and textures of the meal.
First, the Tash-t-Nari is passed around and diners wash their hands from warm water in a samovar. The Waza (chief cook) personally supervises each dish which comes out of his kitchen. A Waza pays attention to every detail of the meal from handpicking the ingredients to ensuring that each dish in this rich cuisine perfects its desired flavour.
Choice delicacies such as Methi and Tabak Maaz, Rogan Josh and Rista, and a variety of Kebabs are served over rice. A traditional Wazwan will be completely meat-based, where meat is prepared along with vegetables, but certain vegetarian dishes can also be included in the Wazwan based on the likings of the guests. The meal concludes with the Gushtaba, an exclusive dish that is never refused. Phirni for dessert and a cup of Kahwah, and the Wazwan is over – a meal that is an experience in Kashmiri hospitality.
But vegetarians need not worry, there are plenty of options of vegetarian curries and vegetable preparations, street foods, lentils that are as unique as the meat preparations. Some of the vegetarian dishes include Nadru or lotus stem, which is a fibrous and juicy vegetable and is prepared in a quintessential Kashmiri style, Haaq or greens that are sautéed and mildly spiced, Tamatar Chaman Paneer (cottage cheese) in a tangy spicy tomato curry preparation and Dum Aloo a potato dish that is famous throughout the country that is also known to have Kashmiri origins. Food is often accompanied with a variety of chutneys and walnut chutney is a Kashmiri speciality.
All in all Kashmiri cuisine is a vast and complete ecosystem of indigenous ingredients, age-old recipes resulting from a myriad of cultural and religious influences, dishes that serve the purpose and produce of seasons- which can be very demanding, and methods of cooking that have evolved through centuries and retain their utility even today.
It provides complete nutrition and is uniquely flavourful. It ranges from breads, rice, vegetable dishes, meat preparations, sweet, savoury, and spicy street foods, teas and milk beverages, sweets, and cakes, spices, fruits, and nuts all brought together with the ethereal magic of the Kashmir Valley.