The first course at Masque, a cuisine-agnostic, ingredient-driven restaurant in Mumbai, is always served in the kitchen.
On the first work station was a smouldering brazier. However, instead of charcoal, the brazier was filled with cinnamon sticks and the aroma of cinnamon enveloped the kitchen. Standing behind the brazier was the tall, muscular guest chef Mike Bagale who, until recently, was the executive chef at Alinea in Chicago, one of America’s most sought after dining experiences. As we gathered around the table, Bagale handed us (everyone at the table was taken in together) warm canoe-like cinnamon sticks filled with pumpkin mousse, dehydrated apple, jelly from cinnamon tea, and topped with toasted, shaved hazelnut. He explained, “The reason we’re starting with this dish is because the first place we stopped at in Srinagar was a spice shop and we could smell the cinnamon as we approached it. We wanted to recreate this experience for you.”
I knew this wasn’t fiction that the American chef made up to set the mood for diners because I was there with him in June 2018 for four days travelling in and around Srinagar when we visited the spice shop in the city’s Nowhatta Market. Bagale was in Mumbai to do a pop-up with executive chef and co-owner of Masque Prateek Sadhu. Over the last year Sadhu had been on a journey of rediscovery; exploring and incorporating produce from his native Kashmir on to his ever changing menu. However, he hadn’t limited himself to just lesser known local ingredients, the intrepid chef had been foraging in the forests and the emerald green countryside of the valley, picking up lesser known and almost forgotten wild berries, fruits, flowers and vegetables. Before the pop-up, Sadhu took Bagale to Srinagar and the surrounding areas, to introduce him to the ingredients, the flavours and the context of the cuisine. I was fortunate enough to accompany the chefs on their expedition and get a chefs’ eye view of the city.
Nowhatta Market is just outside the main entrance to the Jamia Masjid, the oldest and largest mosque in Srinagar. It’s a mixed use market and apart from spice shops and/or kitchen equipment stores you’ll also find tailors and cloth sellers. Outside the shops, sacks filled with Kashimiri chillies of different sizes and thickness sit cheek by jowl with sacks of dried dandelion, cocks comb and pink shallots. Inside are boxes filled with whole spices like cinnamon or packets of veri masala (the thick, donut-shaped version of Kashmiri garam masala paste), mounds of chilli and turmeric powder, and varieties of teas. Tucked away in a corner are packets of single pod Kashmiri garlic, also known as Snow Mountain Garlic since it grows only at high altitudes on the foothills of the Himalayas. While the two chefs pick out cinnamon sticks for the amuse bouche, I can’t help but notice the unusual architecture of the mosque whose minarets resemble Buddhist pagodas.
Dinner is at the famous Ahdoos in Srinagar. What started out as a tiny bakery in 1918 has, in a hundred years, expanded into a very large restaurant and a modest hotel. We make our way to the back of the restaurant which opens into an alfresco area—perfect for the cool evenings of Srinagar. Almost every restaurant in the city will offer a wazwan, the traditional Kashmiri celebratory meal served on every important occasion from weddings, to a birth, or housewarming. Some would argue that Ahdoos is a touristy place to eat the wazwan, and they might be right, but that doesn’t detract from the quality of food. At Ahdoos, Bagale tried wazwan for the first time. Here, the wazwan is modified, and instead of being served on a traditional communal trami, the first course is served in individual engraved tramis. It consists of seekh kebab, tabak maz and methi maz (methi cooked with mixed offal), on a bed of plain white rice. The remaining courses which include two types of spongy hand-pounded mutton kormas–goshtaba in a white yoghurt gravy and rista in a red onion-chilli gravy; Kashmiri spinach; rogan josh; as well as extra portions of kebabs, tabak maz and a variety of white radish chutneys, are placed on the table (Residency road, Regal Chowk; Individual trami wazwan is for Rs700).
One of the most popular areas for street food in Srinagar is Khayam Chowk. Rows of kebab vendors line either side of the road. The menu at each varies only slightly; almost everyone sells seekhs, botis and a flat, naan-like Kashmiri bread called lawas. Some may also serve tandoori chicken while others will offer battered, deep-fried fresh-water fish. Both the spicy botis and the two-foot long, pipe-like seekhs are pre-prepared and only finished on the sigdi before serving. They are accompanied by a variety of differently flavoured grated radish and yoghurt chutneys which help to mitigate the pungency of the kebabs (cost for two approximately Rs200).
Hidden away in the old city, past lanes so narrow that they can’t accommodate a two-wheeler and a car side by side, Senoo Kashmiri Pickles is as far off the tourist map as you can possibly imagine. The 15-year old pickle shop is run by a wizened Haji Ghulam Qadir Senoo. A solitary framed newspaper article explains how he switched to pickles after the rise of militancy destroyed his transport business. Now he sells more than 100 varieties of pickles made from almost every kind of local vegetable, fruit and even fish, meat and chicken; I bought a tangy, mustardy beef pickle (Barbar Shah, Habba Kadal; pickles from Rs150 for vegetables and Rs700 for mutton).
While many chefs have adopted the practice of farm to fork, at Masque Sadhu has taken it one step further–he’s taken a forest to fork approach. The lush green forests around Srinagar are perfect for foraging and in Nazir Malik, Wildlife Warden of Dachigam National Park, Sadhu has found the perfect mentor. Malik, who knows the botanical name of every single plant and animal in the forest range, regularly takes visitors on guided tours either on foot or on noiseless electric buggies. We choose the latter and ever so often Malik stops so we can pluck sweet white, green and purple mulberries and sweeter apricots (but not a single flower). Along the way we spot sour gilas or wild cherries, and even tangier gordoul or Chinese plum, which was the primary souring agent in Kashmiri cuisine before tomatoes were introduced (Contact Nazir Malik 0194-75411; guided tour by appointment only).
It’s quite understandable why Chai Jai is one of Chef Sadhu’s favourite places for a cup of tea. Overlooking the Jhelum river, the quaint, Cotswold-inspired tearoom, above Mahatta & Co (one of Srinagar’s oldest photo studios), has an air of serenity that forces you to sit back and relax. A large inside room is sometimes converted into a performance space, but in the evenings it’s the perfect place to try out one of the eight varieties of tea they serve. We opted for a pot of kahwa, the light tea flavoured with sweet spices and saffron, garnished with rose petals and almond slivers, and one of pink noon chai. This unusual concoction has a salty, buttery flavour which is the result of baking soda being added to the tea leaves to cut down the acidity. The baking soda reacts with milk to produce the iconic baby pink noon chai (1st Floor, Mahattas Studio, The Bund Road,; cost for two is Rs500).
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that the best way to see a place is through the eyes of a local; I’d say the best way to eat through a city is by the side of a chef.
Antoine Lewis lives to eat and writes to live. As a journalist, he’s spent the last twenty years digging through culinary histories, sniffing out emerging food trends and eating his way through the world's best, and worst, restaurants.