Seventy-seven-year old Sher Khan could well be called the father of street food in this Jammu and Kashmir summer capital, or at least he claims to be one.
As the fragrance of his mutton skewers spreads in Khayam Chowk in the evening, nearly two kilometres from city centre Lal Chowk, Sher Khan narrates his story of setting up the roadside kiosk years back that is today known as ‘Sher Barbecue Cafetaria’.
“Buying the best quality lean mutton, marinating it with the right spices, yoghurt and edible oil, allowing this to mature to the right succulence and then roasting it in skewers over a simmering charcoal fire is something that comes to you after many years of practice, Sher Khan told IANS.
“My customers are my pride and they trust what I serve them,” he added as customers thronged his shop on a foggy, winter evening to get extra calories to brave the freezing winter chill.
He serves his barbecue skewers with an assortment of chutneys and locally-made loaves of thin bread called ‘Lawasas’.
“Chutneys and lawasas come free with each skewer of marinated, roasted mutton that costs Rs.90. For most of my customers two to three skewers is a complete meal,” Sher Khan said.
Seeing most of his customers lick their fingers as they wash down the feast either with plain water or a cold drink, one cannot help believing that Sher Khan has perfected his art over the years.
“I was just 25 years old when I started this business. People used to come here to watch movies and during intervals and after the movies, they would come to my shop,” he said.
After separatists banned cinema halls in Kashmir, the theatre in Khayam Chowk after which the market square was named has been shut, but Sher Khan’s barbecue shop, along with half-a-dozen others, are still doing roaring business here.
Another well-known barbecue shop at Khayam Chowk is the ‘Imran Barbecue Cafeteria’.
Many other street food shops are also situated in the vicinity of these two well-known joints.
Tandoori chicken, kebabs, the local cuisine called ‘wazwan’ and fried fish are also sold at a couple of shops in Khayam Chowk.
But, the main attraction for locals and tourists at this food street are the barbecue skewers.
The road at the market square is often jammed in the evenings as many customers prefer to have skewers served to them on disposable plates inside their vehicles.
People from different walks of life including youth, businessmen, civil servants and even high-profile politicians have been visiting the place for their choice street food.
“I have had the honour of serving my barbecue skewer to the chief minister (Omar Abdullah), who came here once with a friend and had my skewers inside his SUV parked alongside the road,” said Imran Barbecue Cafeteria owner Iqbal.
The market was flooded during the September deluge and shopkeepers here say nobody has so far given them any relief to restart their businesses, which they have done on their own.
“Definitely, after the floods the customer rush has fallen, but it is picking up again,” said Sher Khan who confirmed he had been selling nearly half-a-quintal of barbecue to customers each day before the floods hit his shop.
“All of us have renovated and refurnished our shops from our savings without any relief from the government so far,” he said.
He also said the customer rush is always higher during the winter because everybody needs extra calories to brave the cold.
Zeeshan Ahmad, 30, used to live in Khayyam Chowk before the floods. He has now shifted to a relative’s place in the old city, but he comes regularly to buy barbecue skewers as he says his family has become used to this evening delicacy because of its taste and fragrance.
“The appetizing smell of roasted barbecue brings me back to this place each evening,” Ahmad told IANS.
Many customers come with family and friends to eat at these roadside eateries.
For many years now it has become a custom for some locals to send barbecue skewers from Khayam Chowk to the homes of their newly-married daughters.