An important stop on the ancient silk route, Kashmir has been best known throughout history for growing the most expensive spice in the world — saffron, and of course the multi-course dishes that make up the legendary wazwan.
City food lovers had the chance to experience this rich cuisine at the ‘Kashmiri Food Festival’ pop-up curated by Aloft Hotel with a short-term menu designed by Chef Sanjay Raina from India and Aloft Executive Chef Rajeev Shrestha.
I caught up with Chef Sanjay and Rajeev over a preview tasting of the menu. Born in Mumbai, Sanjay, a Kashmiri pandit, became an ambassador of his culinary culture. Today he is synonymous with authentic Kashmiri cuisine. Chef Rajeev shares an incredible experience of working on the festival. “We have an unwavering commitment to showcasing culture via cuisine at Aloft. We aim to present culture on a platter and bring to Kathmandu, aspects of various cuisines that might surprise even the most diehard foodie,” he says.
Chef Sanjay shares, “Kashmiri pandits love their food and it’s the distinctive style of preparation and treatment of the food and ingredients that make Kashmiri cuisine more delectable.” Sanjay isn’t a new name to Kathmandu food lovers. He curated the menu for the first Kashmiri Food Festival at Aloft in the year 2019. “People loved the food and the aroma. Kashmir and Kathmandu shares many things in common. First it’s the weather, hospitality, and the love for meat and rice,” he smiles. So, once again he has been flown in for the festival exclusively. Sanjay is affectionate and happy spirited when the topic of discussion is about the food and people who eagerly want to taste and relish anything that he has to offer. And when Sanjay comes to cook, he comes with all his spices which are peculiar to the valley.
While talking about the menu, I am carried away on a saffron-scented wave of flavour. For tea drinkers, kahwa is served on request and once this tea comes no one can refuse the refills. It is very healthy. “It is not difficult to prepare if you get the Kashmiri tea leaves which are difficult to procure in Kathmandu,” he laughs. Roasted crushed almonds, whole spices, saffron and cardamom make the tea aromatic and tasty as nothing you have had before though the dried rose petals were missing.
We move to the main course and sit down to an assortment of bowls. I look through the beautifully put together menu. It has the story of Kashmiri cuisine on one side and the selection of dishes on the other featuring everything from the classics to lesser-known dishes and street food options.
What’s Kashmiri food fest without Kashmiri pulao? But the preview had plain rice rather with ghee drenched grains of finest Basmati. Though Kashmiri pulao or meetha pulao, in the Kashmiri Pandit community, is considered auspicious to start the meal with it, the dish was missing in the press preview. Sanjay has kept the meal simple and delectable, so on the table was rice, dum aloo, mutton rogan josh, chicken yakhni and paneer prepared in milk and flavoured with tumeric.
Succulent meat options follow: Mucch, a soft, subtly spiced mincemeat kebab usually served as a gravy dish is served dry. The piece de resistance of the starters is Tabak Maaz. Usually, part of the main course these are lamb ribs twice cooked — first slowly in milk and spices, then equally slowly in ghee — until crisp on the outside and succulent on the inside. A perfect start to our meal. These paired with a subtly pungent Muji Chetin (chutney) and a robustly spicy Pyaaz Chetin redolent of mustard oil.
Kashmiri cuisine has evolved over centuries into a happy marriage of spices, meat, dairy, vegetables and fruit. It has two branches, that of the Kashmiri Pandits and the Kashmiri Muslims. The root dishes are common, but the cuisines are distinct based on certain ingredients. “Asafoetida, fennel powder, chilli are common, but Kashmiri Pandit cuisine — which is incidentally one of the few in India that eats meat — uses no onion, tomatoes, and garlic. Muslims on the other hand use garlic, and onion, generously,” shares Sanjay. For the festival, Sanjay is showcasing both, because that is real ‘Kashmiri cuisine’ in his opinion.
“The food gets its flavours and textures from the spices being slow cooked with ingredients till they let out their inherent juices and fats and melt together. Like the Dum Aloo,” Sanjay continues, offering me the dish.
“Kashmiri Dum Aloo is not authentic unless it has slowly cooked in spices and absorbed all the flavours,” adds Rajeev. Dum Aloo was the showstopper of the preview.
The dishes like Nadir Yakhin — lotus root in yogurt gravy, one of Kashmir’s best-known dishes was missing too. “Lotus roots are not available in Kathmandu. The menu is prepared considering the availability of the produce,” Sanjay explains.
Talking about the cooking procedure, the chefs share the joy in layered cooking. “If you close your eyes and visualise Kashmir, you will see a relaxed, slow-paced life which pleases you. The cuisine is very similar to that. It takes a lot of time, there are small little details in each dish and almost every dish goes through multiple processes and requires more than one form of cooking. It is both laborious and rewarding,” they say.
The meal comes to an end on a sweet note with Saffron Phirin, a semolina pudding redolent with saffron and Shufte, a dry fruit and paneer concoction in saffron scented honey. My stomach feels as if it’s in heaven.