In downtown Srinagar, amidst shop windows displaying delicate papier-mâché boxes and intricate shawls, heavily armed troops crowd the pavements. Puddles of purple water shot by police cannons lie stagnant in the street, yet an officer assures us there’s nothing to worry about. “Just a protest… it’s all over,” he tells my wife as we bundle our two toddlers past an armoured vehicle.
All morning, I’ve been grappling with a sense of irresponsibility at having brought my family here. Despite Kashmir’s unsurpassed beauty and the treat of fresh air after months in Delhi’s fetid smog, the potential for violence is evident at every turn. Elegant houseboats moored on the Jhelum River sit beneath shells of burnt-out buildings. Green-eyed children with apricot complexions skip past sandbagged gun emplacements. Even on a shikara in the middle of Dal Lake, we pass an armed, waterborne patrol.
I manage to reassure—or perhaps delude—myself that we are in no more danger here than in Delhi’s insane traffic. But my real motivation for coming is unadulterated greed. I have come to Srinagar to eat—or more accurately, to stuff myself to bursting. Over the next two days, we are to be guests at a large Kashmiri wedding, at which our hosts will be serving a veritable feast that I have long wanted to experience: the Royal Wazwaan. Like an echo from the heroic age of the Shahnameh, the Persian Book of Kings, it boasts no less than 36 courses, a fusion of Central Asian, Persian, and Indian flavours prepared by hereditary chefs who claim descent from cooks brought to Kashmir by the ruler Timur in the 15th century. My mouth is already watering at the prospect of rista balls of pounded mutton in saffron-flavoured gravy, lotus stems prepared with yogurt and aniseed, and chicken kebabs cooked with local red chillies. And I have taken the precaution of building up an appetite, determined to show my hosts that when it comes to consuming large quantities of food, we Brits can hold our own.
What I’m not prepared for is coming face to face with lunch—at least not while it’s still alive. But as we dismount on the doorstep of our hosts’ home in a Srinagar suburb, a herd of 25 unsuspecting sheep shimmy past us down the lane. My children are overjoyed and my daughter mimics their bleating as we are led into a large house. The Kashmiri welcome and hospitality is almost overwhelming and the bear hugs leave my ribcage tingling. Soon we are sitting cross-legged on silk carpets while being plied with chewy macaroons and kahwa from an antique samovar. Neither friends nor strangers hesitate to hug, kiss, toss in the air, and wrestle with our kids in a rough-and-tumble yet playful manner almost unthinkable in the overprotective Western world.
It is this same honest-to-goodness spirit that compels my friend Yasin to lead me into a nearby compound to admire the sheep—or rather the surviving two-thirds of the herd. The rest have already been reduced to a state my children would not recognise. As I watch, two more of their brethren are quickly and efficiently dispatched in accordance with halal custom. The wedding videographer is on hand to capture all the grisly detail and takes great pains to shoot the skinned carcasses hanging from the branch of a tree. I joke that these images are hardly going to make for happy family viewing, but am told that on the contrary, the quantity and quality of mutton, which is brought from Rajasthan, is a potent symbol of the family’s prosperity and largesse.
“My clients usually ask me to start my edit with these shots,” the videographer smiles, before adding with masterful understatement: “We Kashmiris really appreciate our mutton.”
That appreciation is manifest in the frenetic scene that greets us as we enter an adjacent garden. Through a haze of wood smoke and steam, I can make out 40 or so wazas preparing lunch for the 1,200 guests expected tomorrow. Gunnysacks of rice are being emptied into giant pots; blackened cauldrons bubble atop a 25-foot-long fire where logs blaze red hot; senior cooks—rugged individuals in stained salwaar kameez, who look more than a match for Hell’s Kitchen’s celebrity chef—bark orders with martial authority. There isn’t a gas hob, refrigerator, Teflon pan—or indeed a woman—in sight. This is very much how I imagine a Mughal army’s field kitchen looked, right down to the hookahs filled with tobacco and the overhead awning with its bright, geometric patterns. Centre stage is a long mutton production line with 15 men sitting cross-legged before rudimentary logs that serve as chopping boards. Those at the head cleave hunks of meat before passing the cuts to younger wazas tasked with the hardest work: pounding the meat with heavy wooden mallets and reducing it to a sticky paste that resembles raspberry mousse.
“During wedding season we work non-stop for three months every day from dawn to late in the night,” says the ustad, or chief waza, Nazir Ahmed Aram. A stocky man with worn, pitted features, he takes a pinch of the raw meat between his stained fingers, tastes it for the content of its salt and chilli, and gives a gruff, approving nod. “I started off doing the pounding,” he continues as he wipes his hands on a grimy towel slung over his left shoulder. “But it is a job for the young.”
I follow Nazir as he makes his rounds. He stops to sample the meat stock, smearing some of the liquid onto the palm of his hand and then sucking it up with a loud slurp. He oversees the grinding of the spices, blending of the masala, and the rolling of the minced seekh kebab. Finally, he tests the tenderness of the paneer, chunks of which are being boiled with turmeric.
“The quality of the pots is important: They must have just the right content of copper,” he tells me. “Using wood is important, too. Walnut and apple are best. Cooking on gas—it’s not the same. You don’t get an authentic taste. But wazwaan requires a secret ingredient, also. It must be cooked from the heart. From right in here.” He beats twice on his chest to emphasise his words. “My father taught me these recipes, he taught me as a child just as his father did before him,” Nazir adds. “So, I alone know how they should taste. When I am cooking I can still hear my father’s voice, advising me on how it should be.”
What of vegetable dishes? I ask, almost tripping over a giant bowl containing some 200 marinated chickens. I’ve spotted a few pumpkins, quinces, and a couple of bushels of lotus root, but that’s about it. Are they not expecting any vegetarian guests?
Nazir gives a mocking laugh and repeats my question to some other wazas sitting within earshot. They respond as if to a bawdy joke shared in an army barracks.
“Find me a Kashmiri vegetarian and I will give you a pot of gold!” he beams as the mallets continue to pummel the mutton with a sound akin to war drums.
After a long night of boisterous celebrations culminating in the consumption of enormous, sweet cream cakes, I leave my family in the care of our hosts and set off to explore Wazapore, the labyrinthine section of old Srinagar that has long been home to Kashmir’s hereditary cooks. Like most of the city, it has suffered under the insurgency and economic stagnation. Many of the old houses with their latticed wooden facades are sadly dilapidated. Broken windowpanes bear testimony to past acts of violence.
Down an alley edged by open drains, I find the house of Khan Mohammed Rafiq Waza, one of three brothers regarded by many as Kashmir’s finest cooks. While we sit chatting, his phone rings and he is obliged to answer.
“Another wedding,” he says by way of an apology after concluding the conversation. “Often we come to know who is getting married before anyone else because the parents call us first to make sure we can cook the wazwaan. Our family has worked for some of these families for generations. Some of them still remember meals that my father prepared. ‘We ate from his hand,’ they will say. It is a mark of great pride. But nowadays, we’re turning down work. If we didn’t, we would all collapse from exhaustion! Imagine cooking for 2,000 people. You work like a demon!”
The truth is wazwaan, which means “bazaar of cooks”, was once the preserve of nobility, Rafiq explains. The average Kashmiri couldn’t afford all the meat, let alone the services of the prized chefs, and such grand feasts were extremely rare. Amongst the newly wealthy middle classes, however, weddings have become grandiose affairs. Attempts by the goverment to limit the meals to six or seven dishes have been soundly rejected. “Nowadays everyone is trying to outdo one another. The size of the meals has become a status symbol,” adds Rafiq with a hint of sadness, although he is quick to emphasise that little food goes to waste.
“The guests are all given little bags to take away what they cannot eat,” he says. “It is not like most north Indian weddings where so much is thrown away.”
I explain that I am due at a lunch in just over an hour and ask him whether there is any special Kashmiri etiquette that I should follow during the meal.
“If you can finish four or five courses you will be doing well,” he says, looking me up and down in a manner that suggests that I’m not up to the task.
“I can tuck away quite a lot of meat,” I point out, feeling as if my manhood is being challenged. “Plus I skipped breakfast,” I add.
But Rafiq looks unimpressed. “If you were an Afghan I would give you good odds. But our Kashmiri rice… it is a meal in itself. Believe me, it will be your undoing.”
The 50-foot-long tent pitched in the garden of one of Yasin’s obliging neighbours has a frilly, blue ceiling that clashes with the subtle reds of the Kashmiri carpets covering the ground. Even with electric lights burning overhead, there is no mistaking the nomadic echoes of the past, nor the intrinsically Islamic fashion in which the family and guests congregate to eat. Six hundred men sit in groups of four along narrow lengths of cloth stretching in parallel from one end of the tent to the other. Unlike the Kashmiri women guests I have met in the past 24 hours, who all wear bright, baggy silk suits and headscarves, there is no such uniform amongst the men. Jeans are as common as silk kurtas; baseball caps as numerous as turbans. There is a clean shaven chin for every grey beard. Yet despite the obvious generational differences, a quiet synergy runs through the gathering and, as I am shown to my place, the presence of a foreigner is noted discreetly.
I join three strangers, one a physiotherapist, another a shopkeeper selling mobile phones. The third is a student. He also proves to be a dissenter.
“We have to eat this food at every wedding and it is always the same,” he grumbles, keeping his voice down. “Personally, I like pizza.”
But the physiotherapist overhears and quickly admonishes him, keen to provide me with something of a culture lesson in the process.
“You have to have wazwaan at a wedding,” he says. “It’s an inseparable part of our identity, of Kashmiriyat. The meal is about coming together, about celebrating hospitality and brotherhood.”
I wash my hands in a basin brought to us by one of Yasin’s cousins. As I look up, the bride’s brother strides purposefully into the tent bearing a round metal platter. More follow and one is placed in the middle of our little group. The lid is then theatrically whisked away to reveal a mound of steaming rice dissected by four long seekh kebabs. Arranged between these are portions of tabak maaz, or lamb ribs, and hunks of rogan josh doused in thick, red gravy. There is no further prelude to the start of the meal: The others simply start eating off the same plate, expertly handling the rice with their right hands. Without the aid of a spoon or fork I fare less well and almost commit the ultimate faux pas of using my left hand to break apart the meat. But the food is to die for. Despite the virile manner of the preparation and the furious heat upon which it has been cooked, the flavours are pleasingly subtle. The kebab is soft and smoky with a hint of cumin and mint, while the ribs enliven the tongue with a buttery taste derived from the ghee in which they have been fried. As for the rogan josh, the meat flakes off the bone in tender, juicy chunks and the spicy gravy is simply, well, “wah!”
I make short work of it all and strike metal beneath the rice just as some of the wazas enter the tent. I recognise them as the mutton pounders from the day before, only they’ve changed into smart uniforms and white skullcaps. Like boxers, they’ve also wrapped lengths of cloth around their hands so that they can carry the hot pots containing the next selection of dishes. These include safed murg, or chicken in a white yogurt sauce, zafrani murg, or chicken with saffron, and soft rista meatballs, which, tradition has it, were first prepared for an elderly king who lost his teeth and needed his meat to be especially soft. The paneer—without question the best I have ever tasted—is quickly followed by my personal favourite, the quince, an apple-like fruit which has been cooked with a blend of cinnamon, cardamom, fennel seeds, and maval, Kashmiri cockscomb flowers.
At least a dozen dishes in—by now I’ve lost count—I am starting to flag. It doesn’t help that one of the wazas keeps coming round with a pot of rice and won’t take no for an answer. The student, too, keeps pushing his portions towards me with an invitation each time to “enjoy!”
With Rafiq’s prediction of failure ringing in my ears, I loosen my belt and gird myself for the next round. Lotus root is accompanied by dhaniwal korma (mutton curry). I manage to finish both along with the obligatory rice. But when a cricket ball-size meatball in yogurt gravy is plonked down before me, I fear that I may have finally met my match.
“Aaah the gustaba! We call this ‘the full stop’,” declares the physiotherapist, indicating that this will be the last dish to be served.
“I thought there were 36 courses?” I say, managing to disguise my relief. But the physiotherapist misunderstands and signals to a nearby server to bring me more.
Somehow I manage to avoid the ignominy of the doggy bag and polish off everything on my plate; and even though it feels like coronary failure is coming on, I get off the floor and stagger outside. I find myself struggling against a tide of women and children hurrying towards the tent where they will now take their places to eat. I make it back into Yasin’s house where I collapse on the floor and, despite my obvious discomfort, am promptly offered yet more macaroons and kahwa.
An hour or so later, after the women and children have all eaten, I find Nazir sitting on the field of battle smoking a hookah and looking understandably exhausted. The young wazas are already hard at work cleaning the plates, scouring the pots and stoking the fire. Tonight there is another meal to prepare and serve, albeit much smaller compared to lunch. Then tomorrow the crew will pack up and move to another location and insh’allah begin the whole process again.
I ask Nazir if he has ever prepared the full wazwaan—all 36 courses—and a slow smile suffuses his features.
“Only once—and that was for a king,” he says sounding as if he’s recounting folklore.
“A real one?”
“It was an Emir—in the Middle East. He flew us there to cook for him and his family.”
“Did they manage to eat it all. All 36 dishes?”
Nazir pulls slowly on his hookah and smoke trickles from his nose.
“Maybe, maybe not. But I can tell you this: Once tasted wazwaan is never forgotten.”
Indeed, as darkness crawls in around us and I watch fresh logs being added to the fire, I’m certain that the memory of his cooking will always stay with me. And that maybe, just maybe, there might be room for a little more.
This story first appeared in the January 2014 issue as “The King’s Feast”. Updated in March 2016.
Hotel Broadway This is one of the oldest hotels in Kashmir and its restaurant serves excellent Kashmiri wazwaan. Every dish, from the tabak maaz to mirch mutton salan and rista, is delectable (Maulana Azad Road; 0194-2459001).
Ahdoos Hotel The gustaba, nadru yakhni, and tabak maaz are great here, as is the naan. The restaurant is a little dingy but the service is excellent—and the adjacent bakery sells walnut cookies and macaroons (Residency Road; 0194-2472593; www.ahdooshotel.com).
The Lalit Grand Palace offers wazwaan favourites like rogan josh, seekh kebab, and haaq saag. The chef does an excellent turnip leaf dish, called hadam saag. Try the nadru chips made from Dal Lake lotus stems (Gupkar Road; 0194-2501001; www.thelalit.com).
Butt’s Clermont Houseboats For authentic wazwaan and delicious kahwa, Butt’s is a good choice. The rista balls are yummy and you will not find more delicious rajma in Kashmir (Naseem Bagh, Hazratbal; 0194-2415325; buttsclermonthouseboat.com).
Ahad Sons Waza Khan Mohammed Shafi caters authentic wazwaan for private functions and home delivers bulk orders around Uday Park. His chicken aloo bukhara korma (made with plums and apricots) and kesar phirni are excellent (Masjid Moth Village; 011-26256017).
Hotel Broadway Delhi The restaurant at the Broadway serves a nine-course meal featuring the best of wazwaan dishes on advance booking (Asaf Ali Road; 011-43663600; www.hotelbroadwaydelhi.com).
Poush This restaurant chain runs two Kashmiri food restaurants that feature some wazwaan dishes on the menu (98212 13232; Phoenix City Mall, Kurla; Hypercity Kasarvadavali, Ghodbunder Road; www.poushmaal.com).
Kong Poush The restaurant is much-loved for its delectable rogan josh, gustaba, tabak maaz, and dum aloo. (Oshiwara, Andheri West, 022-65391201).
Tarquin Hall is a writer who lives in Delhi. His latest book is "The Case of the Love Commandos" (Random House, 2013), the fourth in a series of crime fiction novels starring detective Vish Puri.
Anshika Varma is a Delhi-based photographer whose curiosity in people and communities has led her to travel around the world. She also conducts art therapy programmes for children.