by Tazeem Nazir
SRINAGAR: Since antiquity, Kashmir valley’s extremely cold weather conditions have forced the local populace to innovate to compensate for the scarcity of food items as connectivity to the outside world remains cut off for months. The answer to the vegetable crisis in winter was Hokh Syun, the traditional dried vegetable.
Today, when road connectivity has improved drastically in winter, the Hokh Syun hasn’t faded but become intertwined in what is known as Koshur tradition with women folk in Valley’s rural space mainly involved in the production process. The pictures of vegetables hanging from windows of houses and spread on open balconies fulfil the rural landscape and certain pockets of the city as well.
For Jawhara Begum, a middle-aged woman from central Kashmir Budgam district the process of preparing the dried vegetables starts in spring when she sows the seeds in her kitchen garden.
“I plant tomatoes and bottle gourd seeds in April, water them and see them grow. I then wait for these tiny plants to grow and reach full bloom,” Begum says, adding that it gives her the same feeling as raising her own children.
By July, she starts collecting ripe tomatoes and tiny bottle gourds kick starting the process of drying the vegetables.
“I stretch out a piece of cloth on my balcony or rooftop then spread out the vegetables on it. The sun’s heat and light dry them gradually as we step into Autumn.”
However, the process isn’t simple as it might sound. Begum each night has to bring the vegetables inside in order to save them from any moisture during the night time. She also has to keep an eye on birds during the day so that they don’t spoil her treasure which she sells as the winter approaches.
She says that the drying of vegetables is something she likes because indoor household chores are mundane and monotonous. “I like doing this because it is an activity which is done outside the confines of the four walls.”
She says before she contacts the vendors who buy her produce, the vegetables are all dried and ready.
“What gives me happiness is that people far away from my abode consume and enjoy what I nurture in my kitchen garden. I believe I am spreading more than just love and warmth of Kashmir by cultivating and selling these vegetables.”
It is the labour of countless such rural Kashmir’s women folk who are not just keeping the tradition alive but also letting people make a living who are connected to its market chain.
The distributor who purchases the Hokh Syun from Jawhara Begum then sells it to various retailers.
Ghulam Mohiuddin, a Budgam-based Hokh Syun distributor for over 20 years says the trade continues to be profitable for him.
“We serve as a middleman between the producer and the seller of these vegetables. Hokh Syun has been around in Kashmir’s market for decades and people earn well out of it at every level of the chain.”
Fayaz Ahmad, whose shop is nestled in a traditional Zainakadal lane says that the Hokh Syun business has been in the family for many generations now fetching them good money.
“For the past thirty years, I have been selling Hokh Syun. There has always been a high demand. Since we Kashmiris have been consuming it for so long, the demand will never decrease. Every Kashmiri used to dry vegetables at home in the summer to consume them in the winter because there used to be less availability of fresh vegetables in the winter,” Ahmad says.
Mohammad Shafi, another Hokh Syun vendor says that demand had increased not just in the valley but also in other parts of India.
“The profit is decent but varies from product to product. Our source for Hokh Syun is mainly Budgam, Shopian, and Tral. These vegetables and fish are dried at home by villagers, who then sell them to us through these distributors. There have been negative consequence stories which hasn’t hampered our demand. This is a family-owned business that my father was also involved with and I am still carrying it forward,” Shafi said.
The Hokh Syun basket comprises mainly of Alle Hacthi (dried Bottle Gourd) cooked with dried Waangan (Brinjal); sun-dried Gogji Arre (Turnip) cooked with Nadru (Lotus Stem); Bamchoonth (Quince); Rwangan Hatchi (dried Tomatoes), and Hog Gadde (dried Fish).