Inalienable ingredient

Wazwaan is an integral part of the marriages in Kashmir, even the weddings are scheduled as per the availability of waza (chefs), Abdul Mohamin reports

Wazwan is an inseparable part of Kashmiri weddings. The traditional menu of seven signature dishes in wazwan may be a norm, but the chefs (wazas) are continuously experimenting and adding many novel dishes. Over the years more than a hundred dishes have been added to the wazwan.

Chefs or wazas in local parlance, are hired to cook at weddings. “In wazwan hurry does not achieve the best curry,” says Bashir Ahmad Khan, a master chef who belongs to a well-known family of chefs from Fateh Kadal.

Khan says that wazwan preparation is a time consuming and labor intensive work.

“It is not only the quality of the mutton that decides the taste,” Khan explains.

Khan, however, is not averse to using food grade colors to achieve the best texture. He says their usage can be limited if the other ingredients are unadulterated.

He is not the only chef who works at the weddings. As master chef he acts as coordinator among various groups that form his team assigned with different jobs. The batewaza (the chef who cooks the rice) enjoys a bit of freedom in his work. He is the highest paid in the team.

At any wedding, before the cooking is started, the masterchef has to be paid a tip (ware-zalwen) by the senior woman of the family. The wazwaan is cooked on firewood.

Famous in Kashmir folklore, Bakhshi Ghulam Mohammad feeding the visiting USSR leader, Gushtaba, the finest delicacy of Wazwaan

Different dishes are made from different parts of lamb. The back leg portion goes into making Gushtabas or Kebabs. While preparing Gushtabas and Ristas the mutton has to go through a waiting line of chefs who make the stuff pulpy by pounding it with wooden mallets on stone slabs.

The bony portions are used to make roganjosh, korma and the ribs go into preparation of crispy Tabakmaz. Some of the main dishes of wazwan include Meithimaaz, Daeniphoul, Tabakhmaz, Waza Kokur Wazul, (Spicy chicken using pepper), Safeed Kokur, Rista, Daniwal Korma, Rogan josh, Ruwangan Chaman, Doudh-e-ras, Hindi Roganjosh, Palak, AabGosh, Marchwangan Korma and the most eagerly awaited dish served at the end – the Gushtaba (a soft meatball prepared in curd).

Apart from these dishes, several others like Shami Kabab, Aaloo Bokhara, Kishmish Korma, Badam Korma, Tcheri Kormi, Pulav etc are also prepared. Wazas also prepare separate vegetarian varieties which include Hakh, Wagan, Dum Oluv, Nadir Yakhn, Nadir Palak , Kanegich, mushrooms and peas. Pineapple with cheery too is served. Among the sweet dishes, the preparations mostly include firini or halwa or ice cream.

Bashir Ahmad Choncha, a resident of Raniwari, comes from a family of chefs. He’s now in the business of processed wazwan. He says that the menu has increased over the years as the wazas are continuously experimenting and adding new dishes.

“We are not only improving our mutton preparations that formed the core of our ancestral skills, but are also adding some dishes using meat sourced from chicken and fish,” says Choncha.

Dishes like Kabab, Rista, Lahabdar Kabab, Gushtaba, which were traditionally prepared from mutton, are now being prepared from chicken and fish. However, Khan says that though the menu is increasing, there’s a decline in learning this skill as their children are reluctant to venture into this trade.“Many people from villages are now our apprentices,” saysKhan. “Many of them learn over time and we do retain them in our team, but few people from city venture into this trade,” he adds. A special dress, including a white pheran and shalwar, is what sets the waza apart from others.

The dishes are served in a particular order. The food is served in a big plate where four people eat together.

History Professor Fayaz says Kashmiris have been consuming meat since the Hindu period and the consumption was high during ritualistic Tantaric Shavaism era.

Fayaz says there is no mention of such cuisine like wazwan in the historical works during the Hindu period here, including in both the Nilmat Puran, the oldest book on Kashmir, and Rajatarangini, a metrical chronicle from the 10th century about kings of Kashmir from earliest times written in Sanskrit by Kalhana.

Muslim rulers introduced craftsmen and engineers to Kashmir besides cooks who would prepare dishes for them and many believe that the influence of different cultures gave rise to the present day wazwaan.

“It seems that somehow it was here that wazwan progressed the most, though the parts (areas) it came from do not have any significant cuisine of this nature presently,” says Prof Fayaz. “Many experts from Kashmir tried to figure out these or similar dishes on their visits to Central Asia and other adjoining areas, but they could not find these there,” he says.

Families that still run this trade here include Bandare, Khosas, Shaitan – and there is a locality named after the wazas in old city, Wazapora, were many families are associated with this business.

In the past, at the end of the wedding, the wazas would not demand an immediate payment for their work, though they would not leave without taking nasstikarach (tip).

“Today they are paid soon after the wedding is over and they charge per quintal,” say Afaq, a resident of Srinagar.  A top chef would get around Rs 8000 per 100 kg of mutton cooked.

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