Winter Foods: Hunting Down Harissa In Downtown Srinagar

Kashmir's seasonal breakfast delicacy.

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A plate of harissa is garnished with hot oil at a tiny outlet in the Ali Kadal neighbourhood of Shahar-e-Khaas, the downtown area of Srinagar’s old city. Photo: Sugato Mukherjee

On winter mornings, a crowd gathers in front of a few shops in Srinagar’s old town area during the wee hours, even as the mercury hovers around freezing point. They line up to buy harissa, a traditional breakfast delicacy that is cooked overnight in the cold months. Harissa was introduced to Kashmir by the Mughals in the 16th century and the recipe has not changed much since then. Don’t mistake it for the North African hot sauce with the same name. This dish requires meticulous preparation, and is made from the best portions of minced mutton, mixed with local rice, fennel seeds, garlic, cinnamon, cardamom, and other seasonings. The concoction simmers in a huge earthenware pot over a slow fire for at least 10 hours.

Zahoor Ahmed Bhat runs one of the harissa shops near the Ali Kadal neighbourhood. He’s the fourth-generation owner of the business that has been running for almost 150 years. He opens shop at 5.30 a.m. and by 10 a.m. he is done for the day, having dispatched large quantities of harissa to different parts of Srinagar, and the adjoining districts of Budgam and Pulwama.

I find myself at a small table in the dimly lit interiors of Zahoor’s shop. He is seated on an elevated stone platform, and uses a brass ladle to scoop out a generous helping of harissa from the steaming pot. He garnishes it with a dose of flaming hot oil and serves it to me with two choche, a kind of Kashmiri roti. I take a tentative jab at the concoction with a piece of the choche. The blend of succulent meat and rice melts in my mouth. The distinctive taste of each spice—from the strong taste of cardamom to the faint whiff of cinnamon—tickles my taste buds, leaving a smoky trail. Zahoor refills my plate with a generous second helping. “I won’t encourage you to take a third, though,” he smiles. He says that with good reason, referring to a local story about the 18th-century Afghan governor of Kashmir. Apparently he loved the winter dish so much that he died overeating it.

Appeared in the January 2016 issue as “Hunting Down Harissa”.

The Guide

To try this winter indulgence, trace the harissa shops in the labyrinthine lanes of Ali Kadal and Saraf Kadal, downtown in Srinagar’s old city area. The shops, about five in number, have no names or signage, but locals can point you to them. They open from November to March from 5.30 a.m. until they sell out the day’s preparation. Reach early to avoid disappointment. A 100-gm portion costs ₹100-120 and comes with a couple of choche.

A D V E R T I S E M E N T

A D V E R T I S E M E N T

  • Sugato Mukherjee is a photographer and writer. He has contributed to publications such as The Globe and Mail and Al Jazeera, and has received UNESCO's Humanity Photo Award. He is the author of "An Antique Land: A Visual Memoir of Ladakh" (2013).

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