Forgotten Shab Daig

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The wazwaan country has literally forgotten a winter specialty that once ruled the elite Kashmir kitchens, perhaps more often than Harisa, laments Tasavur Mushtaq

Art work by Masood Hussain

Intense cold, heavy snowfall and massive load shedding this winter refreshed childhood memories of indisposed 92-year-old Ghulam Ahmad Qadri. A resident of Lal Bazar, he had spent most of his life in Nowhatta, the old city capital, his birthplace.

In January, when the valley was wrapped under snow and the transmission lines snapped, fond of talking, Qadri, a great grandfather got a chance to talk to his third generation during the extended evening hours.

Otherwise busy in their lives, both physically and virtually, the youngsters had fun listening to old man’s childhood memories. Many things he said, his great-grandchildren could not comprehend. To the best, it was unreal like those spooky ferries tales. But when he talked about winter foods of early 1930’s, mere mention of few delicacies were mouth-watering. Sitting next to him was his 82-year-old wife, Aisha still not forgetting the foods and the food habits.

The children raised query on hearing the name Shab Daig. They mistook the name for a man, initially. The aged Qadris’ had to make a real big effort to deconstruct the delicacy, the aroma of which they said they still imagine, while explaining to the technology-driven, tandoor-fixated Pizza generation.

Shab means night and Daig means a large and heavy bottomed copper cooking container. The day of having Shab Daig was no less than a festival, Qadri remembers.

Aisha described the way it was cooked and the efforts she and other family members had to put in. Those days, she says Kashmir cooked food on firewood-lit hearths and Shab Daig was one of the winter delicacies was prepared and served when snow heaped around and all roads were blocked.

This was an occasional, may be once a season, dish that economically stable families were used to, says Kashmir’s known poet and satirist Zareef Ahmad Zareef. He traces origins of Shab Daig to Shahmiri era, insisting,  “this is a delicacy of Persia.” Shahmiris were Kashmir’s first Muslim rulers, who had migrated from Central Asia at a time when Hindu kingdom was falling inside.

A mixture of meat and turnips, Shab Daig had many variants. The famous in Kashmir was a mix of rooster and a turnip. The lamb, beef and chicken also was cooked. The choice was based on the taste and availability.

“Those days majority of the households had their own small poultry farms where they had chicken, swan, and roosters,” says Dr Ghulam Ali, a Rainawari resident. Then, people would grow even spices in their vegetable garde3ns.

“Rooster was best choice given its availability and size,” Ali said. “Because this was once in a while affair and had to cater many people.”

Preparation of Shab Daig (Image courtesy: Internet)

Hajra Banoo, 90, is frail old lady of Aishmuqam. But she vividly remembers everything. She smiled when asked about Shab Daig. She recalled how it was an occasion of celebration in the family to have this dish in harsh winters.

Being close to her mother, Hajra had good hand at cooking. “A rooster of suitable age with good fat quantity is feathered, but skin is kept intact. Than it is cut into piece depending upon the number of people,” explains Hajira. “The hard outer scaling of turnips is removed and then cut into pieces or added whole to Rooster and fried slightly in mustard oil till it gets light brown. Later spices are added to it which included garlic, salt, cardamoms, Cinnamon, Ginger, Red chilli, turmeric, Ver (Kashmiri Garam Masala), black pepper, cloves, fennel seeds, and a pinch of local saffron.”

After this, Hajra adds little quantity of water and oil is added and the Daig is covered by a lid and then sealed with dough to prevent the escape of vapors and left to simmer for whole night till the break of dawn. The average preparation and cooking time is said to be around 12 hours. The right flavor indicates removal of the lid.

In making this dish, families had everything present at home: a fat rooster, turnips and homemade spices. “Who can have all this at home today when we want everything to get done by technology?” Qadri asked. “Then, there was least dependency on market.”

Remembering the efforts of her mother and paternal aunt and the way they used to manage, Qadri says the fragrance was enough to stimulate taste buds and urge to have the feast while waiting for our mother to serve.

“The neighbours too had their share particularly the pregnant ladies or suckling mothers,” he remembers. “These dishes were an antidote to freezing cold, we would stay warm.”

The delicacy was faith-neutral, Zareef said, as Pandits also simmered the Daig. The poet who spent a part of his early life in Aali Kadal remembers how his Pandith neighbours used to prepare Shab Daig.

The delicacy was cost as well as labour intensive. Prepared once in a while, the dish required full night care. The people who had been part of process say that during the long nights, kerosene lantern, oil lamps or candles, namkeen tea samovar, Kangri and gossip were part of the preparation. The children hovering around were given potato prepared in hot ash. Some families would even invite story-tellers to stay engaged but it was an elitist phenomenon.

Zareef says that poor families used to prepare red kidney beans with turnip, known in local parlance as Rajma Gogji. This was done as they could not afford Shab Daig.

Shab Daig, however, fell victim to conflict, modernity and a changed life style. “When the bloodshed started, people lost interest in all these things as saving life became a priority,” Zareef said. “How it was possible that someone is killed in neighborhood and another neighbour would stay awake to prepare Shab Daig? As Deg lost its significance, Kashmir lost fragrance of this novelty.”

Farhat chu aham cheez, Maesh yaem gam seeth, ath saejni Shab Daig” (Solace is important which has been forgotten by this conflict and now having Shab Daig would not have suited.)

Zareef vividly remembers few names habitual of this novelty. Mostly,k they were elites of that era: “Salam Saebi Parim, Habi Saebi Kowus, Ami Saebi Manuth, Yousuf Saebi Bazaz, Mohammad Omar Wani and Azim Wani.”

 “When the systems in kitchen changed, the traditions were buried,” Ghulam Nabi Bhat, an octogenarian from Chattabal said, adding an angle beyond conflict. “From sitting to standing and now modular kitchens, Shab Daig and other similar delicacies could not find its place after the exit of firewood-lit hearths.”

Shab Daig is part of cuisine in top Hotels in India and elsewhere (Image courtesy: Internet)

Shab Daig is greek to new generation, but mere mention of it, tickles the taste buds of oldies. This, the elders say helped to spend time together. “Now we have food joints where youngsters go and have fast food,” said 72-year-old Ghulam Nabi Baba, a retired school master. “The Shab Daig era was to sit with elders, learn manners and also know the rich history and traditions of Kashmir,”

Baba argues that given the pace of life, the Kashmir delicacies may get lost forever. He seeks an initiative for their restoration and revival.

As Kashmir moved ahead on its “modern” path, Shab Daig was lost. But Daig survived. It is now part of cuisine in Lucknow where around 200 years back, Kashmiris introduced it. Then, its taste and fragrance reached to the royal court and it became celebration for the Nawab in Awadh. The most often prepared variety is of the minced mutton balls of size exactly same that of turnip. The outside Kashmir recipe has significant saffron among various other spices added to it, available literature suggests.

Interestingly, modern chefs have included Shad Daig in their menu in Indian restaurants. Sanjeev Kapoor mentions in his list it as ‘a popular Kashmiri mutton dish’. “Even if we have tried the most fascinating and delicious foods from around the globe,” writes another chef Maida Rahat Ali, “we still come back to our authentic classic food and the classic recipe of Shab Daig.”

But the dish has no takers in Kashmir, place of its origin. “It was part of our heritage,” says Bhat, asking, “Is not it part of our identity?”

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