As better earning population is consuming fresh vegetables around the year pushing the traditional dried vegetables to history, a hospitality veteran has successfully created a vast menu of Kashmir’s traditional sun-dried vegetable cuisine, and it has been a huge success, reports Saima Bhat
The major impact of ‘improved’ connectivity with the plains and better per capita income in Kashmir was on the food pattern. The better stocking of fresh vegetables, greenhouse culture and a chain of controlled atmosphere storage across Kashmir aided this trend. Now Kashmir has access to fresh vegetables around the year.
Fresh vegetable availability during winters had a direct impact on the centuries-old dried vegetable market in ZainaKadal. “Even if the national highway remains closed for a few weeks during winters, we still have local production of fruits and vegetables available,” Waseem Hassan, a consignment agent at Parimpora fruit complex, said. “We also have many cold stores where we store our stock for winters.” This has reduced the dependence on dried vegetables, which have remained part of Kashmir culture for centuries.
Anything that fades out of the markets does not necessarily become extinct. It actually becomes exotic and moves up the ladder. That is what happened to the sun-dried vegetables in Kashmir.
The man behind this shift is hotelier Asif Burza who sensed the significance of the dried vegetables, an indigenous part of Kashmiri cuisine. He invested significantly and created an exclusive menu for his chain of hotels. And it was a success.
“Kashmir is known mostly for Wazwan but when we go back to history it has been adopted by us,” Burza said. “Our identity in food is sun-dried vegetables that we prepare in summers and eat in winters.”
The idea struck Burza when he was outside the state and saw how the hospitality sector has maintained the culture of traditional cuisines at the places they operate. He took it quite seriously. So to promote Kashmiri cuisine he decided to start with some exclusive Kashmiri foods including the dried vegetables. He started with Hoekh Suen festival from December to February in two of his resorts in Srinagar and Pahalgam. “We have guests from outside state and a few Pandit families who come and taste this food,” Burza said. “We got a very good response last year so we decided to go to a festival so that our young generation should know what we had in past. We have to pass it on.”
But it was not an easy job to start. “We started a trial in 2017 but the final product with the best taste was attained after a series of such trials,” said Irfan Ahmad, the general manager at Fortune Resort in Shalimar, a part of Ahad Group of Hotels. “It took us a year to get this final taste with Kashmir’s oldest food consultant, Omaish Mattoo, who has done a number of Kashmiri sun-dried vegetable festivals outside State, approving it. And it was only after that we launched sort of a publicity campaign.”
Getting the stock of dried vegetables was not an easy job. To maintain the quality, Irfan said, they had to get best of the stocks available in the market, and finally, it was the stock from same old city markets in ZainaKadal and MaharajGunj where they identified 15 vendors who provided them with the best quality dried vegetables. Besides, they had to get new sets of utensils, hand carved copper utensils including plates, bowls and serving spoons to serve the special Kashmiri cuisine.
Kashmir’s hospitality sector is consistently changing with the new hotels and restaurants coming up with new themes imitating the West. But a few kilometres away from busiest City Centre of Srinagar, in Shalimar, Ahad group’s Fortune Resort has maintained the Kashmir’s culture.
From decorating the walls with Kashmiri portraits and landscapes, ceiling with art marvel Khatamband, and the surroundings with hand designed copper Samavour, papier-machie, walnut wood furniture and crewel furnishing, they have even named the different sections of their resort with Kashmiri names. As soon as a guest enters, they are directed towards the KehwaKhana where they are served hot Kehwa.
The Ahad Group has entered into an agreement with the ITC in August 2017 for imparting best hospitality skills to the Group. Before inking the agreement, the resort had 40 rooms operational with two restaurants: Cafe Chinar, multi-cuisine and Earthen Oven, a gym and spa. Even though there were some renovations, the hotel staff says the Kashmiri part of it was always there. The new building is under construction that will add 37 more rooms, a banquet hall, and swimming pool to the resort. They have also maintained a SabakKuth, a library where only books related to Kashmir and its history are available.
Burzas are in the hospitality sector from last forty years and now Asif, the third generation leader of the company, believes tourism is not limited to showcasing natural landscapes but means experiencing a place in its totality. “It is experimental tourism and in that, your culture and cuisine plays an important role,” Asif said. “In our resorts, we have tried to show a part of it and have focused on handicrafts like we are showcasing a lot of walnut products here, papier machie and crewel fabrics so that a tourist gets a feel of living in a Kashmiri household rather than in the hotel.” For having more professionals in his business, Burza tied up with ITC in 2012 so that his staff is trained better and is exposed to the best practices. He says culture is within each one of us but showcasing it is different.
“Professionalism does not mean only professional conversations where they will share the details of spending their days but we have to show our guests the Kashmiri culture of hospitality. With ITC we got a chance where we got a change of learning with experienced people. We got expertise and exposure to understand things differently,” says Burza.
In the interiors of the resort, the new attraction for common masses is Earthen Oven, a theme based Peshawari cuisine restaurant which has been designed on the standards of ITC’s Bukhara Restaurant in Delhi. There, the Group has retained not only the ambience but same taste of food here. But only lunch and dinners are served in the restaurant, prepared by 12 chefs (six locals and six non-locals). The staff claims the speciality of this restaurant are weekends when a local Santoor player performs live as the food is prepared from the live kitchen across the glass cubicle.
Even for the local audience, the starters like ChoonthPakoda, Tangdoori Gucchi, GairGoji and Nader Monje are the most cherished in vegetarian and Mutton Tujj, Farrigad, Mucch Kofta Girda and Seekh Machh in non-vegetarian starters. “In winters, only a few tables remain occupied but in summers, it goes up to 15. Weekends are busier as we get almost 50 people, mostly with their families,” said Irfan.
Off late, the place has become a favourite place, which the resort staff claims is recommended to all tourists coming to Kashmir who want to have the taste of Kashmiri cuisine. “Earlier, the tourists were recommended Ahdoos hotel for Kashmiri taste but we are lucky that tourists are recommended to visit Fortune Resort too for having the feel of Kashmir and the Peshawari exclusive foods,” says Imtiyaz, Resort’s food and beverages manager.
“At Earthen Oven, we cook the same food that is prepared across northern regions. Only the name is to attract the local audience but Peshawar is a place across India and Pakistan, and our food taste is more of Mughlai. Every region has its exclusive foods, and Kashmiri being great food lovers love to add to their taste,” Imtiyaz added. “Even if a variety costs a few thousand, still Kashmiris will order more than one number of a variety.”
At Fortune, the chefs are trained in Delhi’s Bukhara so that the people should not only feel the ambience but taste should be the same. “Every year, we all chefs go for special classes for a week in Bukhara kitchen in Delhi so that the quality is maintained,” says Muhammad Ahmad, executive chef, who is exclusively trained for Fortune kitchen.
Other than him, they have three more chefs preparing exclusively Chinese, Continental and modern breakfasts.
Through Fortune, Burza says he is not only showcasing the Kashmiri culture to the tourists but is also passing it on to the younger generation who are growing fast with fast foods. “It is our responsibility to tell them what we have grown up with, and pass it on to them so that it gets passed to generation next,” says Burza.
In the last few years, Burza sees a change with the coming up of more restaurants and fast food chains. “Kashmiri people have started eating food outside their homes. People prefer to go out for lunch or dinner with their families. The glass is still half empty but the trend is picking up.”