The Wazwan: the masterpiece of Kashmiri cuisine

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Kashmir: this title alone is enough to get all the possible attention around the world. Be it heavenly landscapes, snow-capped mountains, glorious glaciers, rushing rivers, dazzling blue lakes, gushing waterfalls, pashmina, local handicrafts, saffron, dry fruits, apple orchids, conflicts, politics or food, it will get your attention.

Kashmir is the northern part of India, located in the beautiful Himalayas. Kashmir is being praised all over the world not only for its enchanting natural beauty but also for its cultural richness. Kashmir is referred to as a “Paradise On Earth”. A poet once said: “If There Is A Paradise On Earth, It Is This, It Is This, It is this”. The valley has not been captivating people around the world only for its magical mountains, beauty and charm but also for its mouth-watering, appealing, delicious and spicy multi-course meal: the Wazwan.

In the Kashmiri language, Waz means ‘Special Chef’ (person with the rare culinary skills)  and “Wan” means ‘Shop’ (or place where the food is prepared). Wazwan is a majestic and unique multi-course meal of Kashmiri cuisine. The traditional Wazwan of Kashmiri cuisine contains fourteen to thirty-six dishes, that are specially prepared for weddings, parties, festivals, and other occasions. Moreover, It is also served internationally at food festivals, gatherings, reunions, restaurants, and five-star hotels.

Wazwan is a collection of different mutton based dishes from goat, sheep, lamb although other elements such as chicken, cottage cheese and few exquisite vegetarian dishes are also there. Wazwan is one of the most loved and cherished cuisines to taste. It is popular all around the world. Once you taste it, you would crave for more. It has fascinated everyone, who has ever tasted it. The preparation of this royal banquet is considered an art, it needs a lot of skill and effort. Everything from making to serving is done in a unique way. Wazwan is not just a way to satiate the Hunger however a ceremony. You have to try it once to be a part of a wonderful experience. The Wazwan is representative of the royalty of the valley and its people, it is regarded as the pride of the valley. 

History

The origin of Kashmiri Wazwan can be traced back to the Fourteenth Century, when Mongols invaded India. Some historians say that this Mongol invader used to be Taimur, who brought expert and skilled persons of various professions like artisans, trained carpet weavers, woodcarvers, architects, calligraphers, pashmina experts including cooks from Samarkand (a city in Uzbekistan) to Kashmir. Some accounts suggest that royal cuisine was introduced to Kashmir by various central Asian traders and migrants. However, some believe that Wazwan is Persian and came to the valley along with Medieval Rulers, Sufi saints, and Islamic Preachers. It is believed that Zain-Ul-Abidin the eight Sultan’s (King) of Kashmir recognized as “Badshah” popularized Wazwan the most and probably gave it the shape of a formal meal. This Grand Cuisine of Kashmir has been influenced by Persian, Afghani, Central Asian, and Turkish methods of cooking, in spite of which it has been capable of creating its very own identity. Whatever its origin is, it is a banquet to be savoured and experienced. 

Preparation

The basic necessity required for its preparation is freshly slaughtered lamb meat. The secret of perfect wazwan is to utilize fresh meat to make it taste right. The meat acquired is sorted and grouped on the basis of its origin. Each part of the animal’s body has a different taste. A separate dish is made from a separate part of the fragment and each dish is cooked differently, like ribcage is for tabak maaz, shank is used to make daen fhol, internal organs for meethi, neck and shoulder are used for rogan josh and mirchi korma whereas lean ground meat is utilized to prepare rishta, gushtaba, and kabab.

Once the meat is sorted, the Waza (chef) then proceed to process it further, a portion of ground meat is pounded manually on a stone with a wooden mallet over several hours, while another part is minced on a butcher block/chopping block with a cleaver. These skilled cooks, referred to as Wazas in the regional language, are the master chefs of Kashmir. Waza is an artist who is obsessively and passionately engaged with his art. Wazwan is rarely prepared by someone outside the clan, this feature is inherited to them, their ancestors have been associated with this work for centuries and they are still preserving these traditional and ancient culinary methods. They prepare lip-smacking dishes of wazwan and categorize them according to shape, structure and gravies used for their preparation.

Deyghs

Traditionally the wazwan is prepared in unique nickel-plated copper vessels (locally called Deyghs). It is customarily prepared outdoors, in an open-air kitchen locally known as “vurabal“, over simmering fires of hardwoods obtained from old trees. The preparation is done by a team of “Wazas” under the guidance of head culinary expert known as “Vasta Waza” (head chef). Planning is done by the head chef long before the occasion, he is hired weeks before the ceremony to discuss the quantity and quality of ingredients. Kashmiri Wazwan is rich in spices, herbs, and seasoning blends.

The Vurabal, where the wazwan is cooked

The wazwan dishes are mild in taste but rich in flavor due to utilizing the blend of local spices and herbs such as dry fruits, dry-cockscomb flower, dry-fenugreek leaves, dry ginger powder, fennel seeds, shallots, fresh ginger garlic, tamarind, Kashmiri red chillies, black and green cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, black pepper, turmeric, coriander, sry mint leaves, and clarified butter. Most of the Wazwan dishes are red in color, the red color is obtained from either the cockscomb flower locally known as “Maval” or Kashmiri Red Chillies. Saffron is a key ingredient of Kashmiri wazwan, which is used to enhance the flavor and make it taste more elegant. Known for its thick gravies, the Wazwan is not deeply fried, rather it is slowly cooked over a low flame for hours. It is cooked with a great deal of precision, culinary art,  passion, hard work, and enormous love.

Many dishes are prepared in Wazwan, from which seven ethnic meat-based dishes are the most essential, these are the basic dishes of every celebration. 

Methi Maaz

Methi maaz is a flavorful, delicious, and one-of-a-Kind dish. It is derived from the word “Methi”, which means “fenugreek” and “maaz” which means “meat”. This flavoured gravy is made up of lamb stomach and intestines, that is chopped into small pieces and cooked in dry Fenugreek leaves. The fenugreek leaves add an amazing fragrance and distinct flavour. 

Kabab/Seekh Kabab

It’s one of the fantastic dishes of the wazwan. The origin of Seekh kebab is credited to the medieval fighters who used to roast meat on their swords in the open fire. Traditionally the meat used for kebeb is mostly lamb or sheep, however  beef or buffalo are also occasionally utilized  according to local and regional tastes. Kababs are made up of lean ground meat that is minced on a butcher block/chopping block with a cleaver. Eggs are mixed along with spice blends while mincing. The minced meat is then wrapped around iron bars or skewers and grilled on hot coals, grilling on a coal fire gives them a lovely smoky flavor. Typically kebabs are cooked directly on charcoal, but nowadays they are also prepared by microwave grilling, flame broiling, roasting, etc..

Tabak Maaz

It is the most popular and unique product of wazwan. In this dish, the ribs of sheep are cut into medium pieces and marinated in yogurt with spices and afterward simmered till it becomes delicate. It’s then shallow fried in clarified butter over medium heat till it becomes crisp and golden brown in color. It becomes crispy in nature and served as dry pieces.  It tastes absolutely divine, and the crunchy texture pulls you towards another bite.

Rishta/Meatball

The preparation of a classic meatball requires an extraordinary skill. It is a restructured meat product typically red in color, served with red gravy. These smooth meatballs are made with boneless meat, which is manually pounded with a specially designed wooden mallet over a stone. While mincing the meat, fat, spices and eggs and are added to it. It is also important to add fat, adding fat makes it very tasty and soft. The meat mixture is then gently rolled between  palms to form a round meatball. The meatballs are then prepared in red-colored spicy gravy. A dried cockscomb flower is specially used to enhance its color and flavor. 

Rogan Josh

It is one of the signature recipes of royal cuisine known more for its color. It is derived from the word “Rogan” which means “oil” and “Josh” which means “heat”. This tempting dish is traditionally cooked in oil at intense heat. Rogan josh is a red hot meat product, in which tender lamb is infused with few exotic ingredients.  Part of lamb is slowly cooked in a flavourful red gravy, loaded with layers of clarified butter and stirred occasionally  until the mutton is tender and produce perfect thick gravy. The vibrant red color comes from the dried red cockscomb flower and Kashmiri red chilli powder, Sometimes saffron is used to get a color. In spite of including a lot of spices and chilies, the dish is mildly hot. It is very healthy and low-cal.

Aab Gosht

Aab gosht is one of the most liked dishes of Kashmiri cuisine. It’s a simple dish as compared to other dishes in Wazwan, yet very delicious and mild. This milk-based meat curry is cooked with a sweet milk gravy without hot spices. For the preparation of this juicy dish, meat is boiled in water and flavored with few spices, after that milk is boiled along with cardamom and dark peppercorns until reduced to half. When the meat is tender, white creamy milk is added and stirred around over a gentle heat until it cooks well. If you are a Non-spicy food Lover and you cannot handle the heat then, you will love this milk-based sauce.

Mirchi Korma

Among the many curry dishes of Kashmiri cuisine, the royal korma has held a special place. Kashmiri Wazwan is incomplete without a Mirchi Korma. It is extremely spicy, deliciously spiced with lots of dried Kashmiri red chilies and ground spices. This fiery red hot curry is made with little pieces of meat, flavored with soaked red chilies, they need to be soaked in hot water then de-seeded and grinded into a smooth paste. Mirchi Korma is one of the best curry dishes, which gives a classic taste of red dried chilies, it is a delight for all mutton lovers. This dish has many health benefits, protects the heart, treats stomach upset, and helps cure cold, nasal congestion, and digestion.

Gushtab Yakhni

Yakhni refers to a gravy and Gushtaba is a meatball. Gushtaba is a delicious restructured meat product prepared in aromatic yogurt based gravy, locally known as “yakhni”. It is an authentic delicacy of Kashmiri cuisine. This mouth-watering dish is a world-famous, it is popularly known as a “King Of Dishes”. It is the finisher of the wazwaan, a multi-course meal ends with the Gushtab Yakhni. Gustaba is similar to Rishta made from pounded meat chunks but it is cooked in yogurt based gravy (Yakhini) and bigger in size. The specialty of this dish is that the meat is minced with fat to make it more delicious. The meatballs are pre-cooked in boiling water over a medium flame till most of the broth evaporates. The yakhni is prepared by homogenizing curd at the high flame with continuous stirring till it boils. While boiling essential ingredients (fennel seeds, cloves, green and black cardamoms, Cinnamon sticks) are added, once spices give aroma and flavor to the yakhni, the precooked meat dumplings are added and boiled further until the desired consistency is obtained. When done dried mint leaves are added. The dried mint leaves are prime flavor to the dish. The velvety and creamy textured meatballs are royal in taste which can lift up the spirits.

Serving

Once the cooking is done, then preparations are made to serve. The Waza starts serving the first course in the “Treamis”. A traem is a large copper platter, each trami is usually shared by four people. Wazwan is a three-course meal consists of an appetizer, main course, and dessert is served in a specific order. However, rice is one of the most important parts of Kashmiri Wazwan.

First course / appetizer

The first course or appetizer starts with rice and the few dishes  are placed on top of the rice. Rice is served on the Trami and decorated with methi, kabab, tabak maaz, daen fhol, fried chicken, etc. All meat items placed on the rice platter are usually dry. This tream full of delights is garnished with aromatic green coriander leaves after that trami is wrapped around by paper tissues. Meanwhile “dastarkhawans” are laid out in the dining area. Dastarkhawan is a long white sheet used as a sanitary surface and it increases the aura of the dining area.

The traditional way of having wazwan

Traditionally, wazwan is eaten while sitting down on the floor over a Kaleen (carpet)  and interesting thing is that it is eaten by hands without any cutlery. The real joy of eating and sharing by hand cannot be merely expressed in words. The guests come and take their respective places. Once all the guests gather together and sat down, so the first ritual of Wazwan begins. The first ritual is washing the hands of guests. Hands are washed in a “Tash t Naer” in a royal manner. “Tash-t-Naer” is a hand-engraved copper vessel used for washing hands. The portable basin is carried out by attendants and passed around guests, and they go to each guest and pour warm water on their hands by a special copper jug. Once the hand-washing ritual is over, the guests make a group of four and sit together. Then servers bring the Trami and place that between the four people, the Tream is completely covered with a copper lid called the “Sarposh“.

Tasht e Naer

The best thing about Wazwan is that it signifies unity, everyone starts eating it together. Before starting to eat, everyone prays to God. After finishing  the prayer, the Saporsh is lifted from the Trami, and finally they get the first glimpse of appealing dishes of wazwan. Once served with the first course, comes the main course. The plate is not changed in a Wazwan, the same tream is placed to serve the next course. The main course always starts with rista and ends with gostaba, between these two dishes the series of different meat dishes and a few vegetarian dishes are served. Some of the best-known dishes served are Rogan Josh, Mirchi Korma, Cheese, Aab Gosht, Mushroom, Spinach, etc. Rice is a staple and it is served till the end of the meal. The long meal is accompanied by salad, some cold beverages, and curd served in special copper bowls. Along with this, Kashmiri pulao (pilau) and some traditional Kashmiri dips and pickles are passed among the guests. Before the last dish is served guests usually prefer to have fresh rice so they can savor it with luxurious Yakhni gravy without blending in with flavors of different dishes.

A Goshtaba is a treat for the tasting buds its four times bigger than a Rishta, So only one goshtaba is served on one tream and equally divides between the four. The feast runs for about two hours. After the main course is finished, everyone prays and show gratitude to Allah for the fantastic feast. Attendants come and remove the tramis and other crockery items from the Dastarkhwan. After that, each guest is given a packet containing a mini soap bar, wet and dry tissue, a toothpick, one small towel, chocolate and some mouth freshener, candies and gums. The attendants bring the “Tast -t -Nari” once again and goes to each guest, and pour water on their hands. After washing hands, Dastarkhwans are removed and the guests sit comfortably against the wall. The main course is followed by dessert. There are two traditional desserts that are served on these occasions Phirin and Halwa, but sometimes ice cream is also served.  Halwa is served hot in winters while Phirin is served cold during summers. Both desserts are made of Suji (Semolina), only the method of preparation is different. 

Phirin is sweet, delicious and creamy milk pudding, made from semolina, the three main ingredients required to make this dessert are milk sugar, and semolina. Everything else is optional. Dry fruits, Coconut Powder, Sugar are all boiled together in milk and flavored with green cardamom. After boiling all these ingredients, semolina is added to thicken the consistency. In addition to all this, sweet condensed milk is added to enhance the taste of dessert. The Phirni is then poured into beautiful dessert bowls, and each bowl is garnished with a lot of dry fruits and a few strands of saffron. The feast is concluded by serving this gorgeous bowl of Phirin. 

Halwa is a very popular melt in mouth dessert, it is made with roasted semolina, sugar, dry fruits, and loads of clarified butter. To make this dessert delicious the right amount of clarified butter and slow roasting is necessary. The first and important step of making halwa is to roast the semolina in clarified butter. During the process, dry fruits and green cardamom are added to enhance the flavor. It is stirred constantly until it is fragrant, once the semolina turns brown, sugar syrup is added. It has to be cooked until all the moisture is absorbed. Saffron is used to giving it a beautiful color.  Halwa is served in beautiful bowls and garnished with dry fruits. 

Kashmiri Wazwan isn’t only popular because of its taste rather it is because of the culture associated with it. It teaches equality, togetherness, love, sharing, and regard for others. Guests are not discriminated against on the basis of their religion or their social or financial status anyone can sit next to you and can be part of your Treami. Come and enjoy the unforgettable experience of unparalleled traditional hospitality of Kashmir, everyone is warmly welcomed in this paradise

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