A few years ago, at a cousin’s wedding in Delhi, a hushed message started circulating: rice is at the Chinese food counter, go there first. It was quickly followed by another message, in whispers: the rice has finished!
Like so many Indian weddings nowadays, the food was varied, with different cuisines from different corners of the world and from regions within India. Yet, one particular counter was the most popular and the subject of much discussion at this particular wedding — the one which served Kashmiri Pandit (KP) food. A large proportion of the guests were Kashmiri Pandits, albeit of the north Indian plains variety. Irrespective of this geographical difference, many gathered at the counter and questioned Topa Sa’ab — one of the few remaining chefs/caterers in NCR serving this particular cuisine — about rice, or the lack of it. Topa Sa’ab was livid. He had asked the wedding planner whether rice was also to be part of his menu, and had been told not to bother. But Topa Sa’ab knew his clientele — at a Kashmiri Pandit function, no matter what fare is on offer, Kashmiri food will be the top draw.
The menu at most Kashmiri Pandit functions is usually a set affair — kabargas, koftas, methi chaman (paneer), Roghan josh, meethi arhar dal, dum aloo and a khatti tarkari, and, plain boiled rice. Clearly, the wedding planner was not a Kashmiri Pandit and thought — just as at other north Indian weddings — a counter with a variety of freshly made breads such as naan, parathas, kulchas etc was sufficient. After all, who eats plain boiled rice? But this oversight resulted in the hosts having to apologise profusely to all the family guests despite an otherwise beautifully organised reception. Thankfully, Topa Sa’ab rose to the occasion, and, finally, served freshly cooked plain boiled rice for the guests who had waited patiently.
This anecdote encapsulates what remains of the identity of a group which, according to some accounts, migrated from Kashmir three centuries ago. They settled in and around the various courts and principalities in northern India (some even in the erstwhile Madras constituency). Many have never visited Kashmir and their ties are more with the towns where they grew up in — Delhi, Jaipur, Allahabad, Agra, Lucknow, Lahore, etc. With each generation, some Kashmiri words, like those related to cooking, are forgotten, though a few stray words remain in the vocabulary — chaman (paneer), nadru (lotus root) and bazbhatta (a version of tehri), for example, are still used frequently. There are, of course, many other dishes which are part of the cuisine other than those I’ve mentioned above — shaljam saalan, khatti kaleji, kaliya, pasandas, methi and tamatar goli, dum tarkaris (other than dum aloo) and toorai mooli are a few such dishes, though these are cooked more at home rather than at formal functions.
Uttar Pradesh KP food is similar to the food of the KPs from the valley, though it has developed a flavour profile quite distinct from the original. Over the last 300 years, it has been influenced by UP Muslim/Mughlai as well as UP upper-caste food cultures. For example, arhar dal is an essential part of the table in UP KP homes, unlike in Kashmir, and the roghan josh and koftas made by the UP KPs employ cooking techniques closer to the UP Muslim way of cooking — greater use of oil/ghee as well as the process of bhunoing resulting in a richer dish.
Kashmiri food which is available in Delhi/NCR — made by home cooks, wazas (chefs) and restaurants such as Chor Bizarre — is more representative of the food of the Valley, both Muslim and Pandit. There are similarities in the flavour profiles, names of dishes as well as in the love of meat! All of us use saunf (fennel), ginger, cook in dahi/milk, love shalgam (turnips), gaanth gobhi (knoll kol), and, of course, almost always eat our food with plain boiled rice — what the Valley Kashmiris call bhatta. In particular, the UP Kashmiris, like their cousins in the Valley, use no onions and garlic in their cooking for both meat and vegetables. Hing (Asafoetida) is the substitute instead — our kitchens won’t run without it. A “traditional feast”, like the one at the wedding described above, is, increasingly, not cooked in most homes — partly why the wedding guests were so keen not to eat anything other than the food from Topa Sa’ab’s counter. The UP KP community is small, and, increasingly, inter-community/ inter-religious marriages are becoming the norm. The one distinct marker of identity, independent of varied religious rituals, which remains, is food. I note (with some amusement), that my children list a number of KP food items as their comfort food. Some of those dishes I have never personally cooked, such as koftas and golis, having always considered them too tedious. This food — always available at weddings and in the homes of our numerous relatives — isn’t as readily available these days.
Those serving this cuisine have dwindled. There is one food bible to refer to, though, found in most UP KP homes — Kashmiri Cooking by Krishna Prasad Dar, which has been updated by his son, the cartoonist Sudhir Dar. My copy lies in tatters, though. But I realise that if I wish to, sometimes, eat koftas and golis, I need to quickly learn how to make them from the book before I can even think of preparing more complicated dishes such as dum aloo, all to be served with plain boiled rice, of course!