Kashmir is like Scarlett O Hara from Gone with the wind, beautiful but troubled, coveted by many but no one tries to understand her. Just like Scarlett, Kashmir is tempting but temperamental, and many would call ‘volatile’. There is no denying the immense fascination that Kashmir holds.
On a whirlwind trip to Srinagar and Gulmarg, we managed to sample enough Kashmiri food as well as the sheer beauty of the place to be left craving for more.
The Dal lake is like a floating town, a fascinating maze of handloom stores, general stores selling everything from sliced bread to mobile recharges, and hair cutting saloons all lie in the middle of a lake. As you drift along in your shikara, you can sample Kashmiri tea, and corn on the cob, even kebabs, as they are made on other floating shikaras. Boxes of cherries, tins of Kehwa tea powder and packets of saffron are sold by merchants. It’s something out of the Arabian nights. The best time for a shikara ride is after 6 pm, atleast during june summer, the sunset doesn’t happen till 7 30 and the sky is lit up till 8! There is a coffee house as well ona garden in the midst of this immense lake. Cut fruits, and onion bhajjias, and potato fries as you enjoy the cool weather during an Indian summer.
The dal lake has more to offer. If you are staying on a house boat, then it is the perfect eway to sample Kashmiri homestyle cooking and hospitality. We stayed in mumtaz mahal house boat and the food was tasty and had the flavours were beautifully balanced. On our last night in Kashmir we had a veritable feast of chicken and mutton roganjosh along with firni and Kehwa tea to wash it all down. Everything seems more rich as you sit in the warm light reflecting of the polished walnut wood furniture, even as an old world chandelier presides over your dining table.
Want more? Opt for a visit to the vegetable markets which start at 4 30 in the morning. These aren’t mentioned in any guide books, but I read about them on a travel blog, and I am glad to share it on my ‘travel blog’. We dragged ourselves to our pre booked shikara at 4 in the morning and by 4 30 the sky was already a liht blue, since it was reflected of the watery ways, it was as if it was mid morning already. Fresh cut flowers, green leafy vegetables , and red turnips were being sold. It was more of a market for the locals, and many exchanged vegetables ina form of barter rather than exchange money. What was most fascinating was the floating bakery, selling chocolate and honey biscuits, dry fruit cakes , and even homemade ‘belgian’ chocolates. We bought a few cookies and a cake to celebrate my husbands birthday that day.
Sure you can have tea and biscuits in the comfort of your home, but to have it on a floating shikara while you gaze upon a bustling floating vegetable market with a bouquet of larkspurs, dog flowers and Kashmiri roses on your lap- now that’s an experience.
Kashmiri hospitality and the wazwan food is much talked about.one of the oldest and most famous places to eat wazwan food is Ahdoos. Wazwan food is served on formal Kashmiri occasions such as weddings . most dishes are made of lamb or mutton. We had just a single lunch here and decided to overorder. Tabakmaas for starters which was marinated lamb ribs roasted until crisp. It wasn't as succulent as lamb chops or even pork chops. It’s more about the crackling skin than about the meat I suppose.
Then came rista which is meat balls In a red curry. The meat balls are so smooth in texture that they are almost spongy in taste, but unlike sponge they do not soak in the curry. Since they are deep fried individually the rista balls have a characteristic taste and the coating doesn’t allow the meat ball to break up in the gravy.
The same meat balls when served in a curd based slightly sour white gravy is known as gustaba. It may seem like just a curd sauce, but we are informed that it has many layers of spices, and all of them tend to coat the inside of your throat. Our driver warned us against having cold water with our gustaba lest we get a sore throat. ‘old wives tales’ our waiter at the restaurant said.
Then came the mirchi qurma, which was meat pieces served in a red gravy. This one had a sour vinegar after taste. A lot like the Goan vindaloo.
Nadroo yakhni is lotus stems cooked in a similar sour curd gravy as the gustaba. Here unlike the meat balls, the porous lotus stem soak in the sour curry and is an all together different culinary experience.
Most of the curries are a little watery and best had with steamed rice. In a typical wazwan meal, heaps of rice is served and the meat dishes keep coming, sometimes 3 to 4 kg of mutton is served to a table of four. As we stared down at our huge meal, we realised that we had definitely over ordered. My advice try one red gravy and try one white one. Try one with meat on the bone and one with the meat balls.
The food scene at Gulmarg was sadly lack lustre. Websites and blogs will write about the fascinating culinary scene, and party scene in Gulmarg. Unfortunately that’s all during winters, when the foreign tourists come to the skiing capital off India. That’s when they bring out the cozy fires, the fun board games, the hookahs and the fancy food. These are not just my observations but the very words from our hotel manager. It angered me that we ‘Indian tourists’ did not get the same treatment, but I realised later in the evening that most Indian travellers like to have ‘home food’ even when travelling to different places.
A very large number of travellers are Jains. Infact there are many Jain restaurants in Kashmir. The food in most hotels are served buffet style and first its for the Jains, followed by those on fasts, then for the rest of the Indians. ‘no onion’ no tomato, daal and sabji, staples which they know and love is what theaverage indian traveller seeks, and the hotels serve. Some of the tours and travels bring their own cooks along. After a non characteristic and average meal in Gulmarg, our guide informed us that the best Kashmiri food in these parts were in tangmarg, a small village at the base of the mountain before the climb to Gulmarg. A place called ‘down hill ‘ was suggested, and we quickly realised that the food here was even better than the one we had in Ahdoos.
We were served seekh kebabs, and mirchi qurma and steamed rice. Having already had a teaste of mirch qurma at ahdoos, we voted this one better. We finished the meal with a very fancy kehwa. Kehwa is a saffron infused green tea with cardamom, cinnamon and almond. This one came with sticks of cinnamon and slivers of almonds unlike the clear liquid which we had had on the house boat. Great way to end a meal.
In many ways Kashmir is very different from rest of India. For starters its got temperate climate unlike rest of us who live in the tropics. There is none of the dusty brownness, which makes other towns look dirty and grimy, here the ambient dust levels are lower making the scenery go from green to grey to white. The grass on the road side grows effortlessly pretty without manicuring, just the way it does in temperate European countries. Enough reason for envy. The people yes, look different too. One thing both my husband and I noticed is that the men here ogle less, they don’t randomly stare down every tourist, a good sign. Maybe it is their religious upbringing or the years of war ridden stife but they are cautious. Like any other tourist place these guys are mercenary, and be prepared to be cheated atleast once in your trip, but the govt fixed prices make matters a bit simpler.
Every single turn is photogenic, be it poppies growing at the airport or road side fruit stalls. Just like scarlett, Kashmir is effortlessly beautiful.
We couldn’t end our trip without the famed bakery items of Kashmir. The sheermal which was a mild salty biscuit with poppy seeds sprinkled on top. Or the various varieties of walnut cakes, biscuits and pies. We bought boxes of cherries which I thought of baking in a pie, but were devoured fresh instead.
Kashmir has much to offer, be it apples, tulips, Kashmiri roses, golden hued chinar leaves, strawberries or cherries, each during a different season. Saffron and lotus may be political symbols but here they are valued culinary items. As we left Srinagar, through three different security checks, and two baggage checks, we couldn’t help but wish peace and prosperity to this ‘heaven on earth’.