by Syed Shadab Ali Gillani
SRINAGAR: Winter in the Kashmir Valley signals the resurgence of demand for the traditional mutton delicacy, ‘Harissa’. It has become the go-to breakfast for many in Kashmir, offering warmth in the sub-zero temperatures that dominate the region from November to January.
In recent times, the age-old tradition of relishing harissa in the chilly winter mornings has undergone a transformative convenience, thanks to the advent of online purchases. Harissa enthusiasts can now savour this delicacy without braving the early morning chill. Online apps have streamlined the process, making harissa easy and affordable to acquire from the warmth of one’s bed.
Made with minced lamb, rice, and mild spices, Harissa embodies Kashmir’s love for non-vegetarian fare. Cooked overnight in clay pots over ancient wooden fire ovens, its preparation is both a culinary art and a testament to tradition.
Beyond its culinary and cultural significance, Harissa’s roots delve into the spiritual realm. The practice of making Harissa in Kashmir traces back to Sufi saint Baba Abdul Karim Sahab. Manzoor Ahmad Bhat, a harissa seller in Srinagar’s downtown, proudly continues this tradition as the eighth generation in his family to do so. “Every day, he would create two drums of harissa, one for charity and the other for sale,” says Bhat.
Srinagar’s downtown area hosts numerous Harissa shops, many with a longstanding presence. Locations like Maisuma, Aali Kadal, Habba Kadal, Khanyar, and Fateh Kadal are revered as Harissa destinations. Locals brave the freezing cold, forming early morning lines to savour this winter delicacy, showcasing the enduring popularity of Harissa in the hearts of Kashmiris.
Harissa, a cultural gift exchanged between families, holds a special place in Kashmiri traditions. Fathers often send harissa to the newlywed daughters’ families.
Prepared nightly by skilled individuals, harissa demands an overnight cooking process. Bhat emphasises the challenge, stating, “To start, we warm up the earthen pot with coals before adding the rice. After adding the meat and spices, and allowing it to steam until the bones separate, we start removing bones and thoroughly mix the dish until it becomes a paste.”
A plate of harissa, priced from Rs 100, can go up to Rs 1200 per kilo. The unique presentation includes garnishing with kabab and Methi Maaz from the traditional Kashmiri cuisine, ‘Wazwan.’
For many, harissa is a winter morning ritual. Salman, a 21-year-old college student, appreciates the dish for its winter flavour and the aroma of heating oil.
Despite its demand, the harissa-making industry faces a generational shift. Bhat reflects, “My son may not continue this profession due to its effort and energy demands. Still, I am committed to carrying forward the tradition of my forefathers.”
The roots of Harissa in Kashmir can be traced back to Ancient Central Asia, influencing the region’s art, customs, rituals, beliefs, and gastronomic culture. Sufi saint Mir Sayed Ali Hamdani’s arrival in the 14th century is linked to its introduction.
Despite its historical significance, health experts caution against excessive Harissa consumption. Prof Iqbal Saleem, Senior Professor of Surgery at Government Medical College Srinagar, notes, “Harissa, made from red meat, contains high cholesterol. Its preparation involves a significant amount of oil, impacting cholesterol levels. Regular consumption can have a negative long-term impact, so it should be enjoyed sparingly.”
A cautionary tale from the Valley recounts an 18th-century Afghan Governor of Kashmir who was enamoured with Harissa, and faced a dilemma on its limits. His fondness led to a tragic end as he “overate Harissa until he died.”