Kashmir Wazwan

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A Bollywood producer, currently in Srinagar, triggered a controversy by claiming that he has introduced veg-Wazwaan. He was trolled for naming a typical thali, a wazwan, otherwise a complete non-veg course. This led a learned man to attempt a brief introduction to the key Kashmir cuisine using medieval chronicles as the source

Bollywood director and right-wing activist, Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri along with his team having food in Kashmir . Pic: Twitter

In terms of its culinary heritage, Kashmir can rightly say to be a jannat for the food enthusiast. Wazwan defines the Kashmiri love for food, and for those who love mutton, it is a feast that you need to relish. But, then like so many practices and customs in our society, Wazwan does not have a ‘start’- a specific point and date in history easily traceable when it could be said to have been introduced and established in our society.

Rather, it is an evolutionary journey of our love for food and spices and commencing with the arrival of Persian Sufis and artisan in the court of Shahamiri Sultans, and progressively expanding so that somewhere by late Afghan period it assumed a form that broadly resembles its essence today.

Tazkia Records

So, the intriguing question always remains where do we trace its roots from? Unfortunately, we hardly find any detailed information on the material culture of Kashmiri society under the rule of Kashmiri Sultans in contemporaneous political histories. Yet, we do find occasional glimpses on how the society was getting transformed in this period in various tazkira’s – hagiographical accounts related to the functioning of various Sufi orders in Kashmir. Central Asian Department of the University of Kashmir has published q 2-volume Tazkira, rendered into English from Persian by Dr G R Jan. These tazkira’s not only helped us in tracing the contours of Muslim society during the medieval period but also serve as an important source for understanding how Persianate and later on Mughal cultural influences got introduced to Kashmiri society.

Kashmiri Wazwan being prepared by Kashmiri Cooks (Waze)

In Dastur-i-Salikin, Baba Dawood Khaki while writing about the life of one of Kashmir’s most prominent Sufi saint, Shaykh Hamza Makhdoom (popularly known as Sultan-ul-Arifin), describes an anecdote related to life in the saints khanqah, which indicates that the consumption of bread was regulated for specific times of the day.

Probably the most detailed version of customs related to food prevalent during sixteenth century Kashmir is recorded in Tuḥfat-ul-Aḥbab. Completing his work somewhere in the early part of the seventeenth century, the author of this tazkira, Mulla Muhammad Ali Kashmiri writes in details about the cultural life of sixteenth-century Kashmir, especially of the urban elite, the court life of the Sultans and the Sufis operating in the various khanqahs of the city. He writes about feasts that were held by nobles as well as those that took place in the premises of the khanqah.

Sixteenth Century Feasts We also find a reference to feast, to which Sufis would be invited in  Khaki’s Dastur. Of the special foods that Mulla Muhaamamed mentions we find references to kabab, pulao, zard pulao, tursh pulao, yakhni (meat cooked in curd) etc. The description of these food specialities and their association with the court –khanqah culture does indicate their non-native origin, linking them to gastronomical traditions of the Persianate world from which most of these Sufi’s hailed.

A Lost Menu?

A reading of the Tuhfatul would indicate that amongst Muslim elites of sixteenth-century Kashmir, mutton rice and bread were regularly consumed. Mulla Muhammad also writes about dal (lentils) and rice being cooked together, a tradition that is now lost! Equally intriguing is his reference to ‘professional cooks’ who were specially employed at weddings. Are they the precursors of our waza’s: the master chefs of Kashmiri cuisine, we can just venture a guess?

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

The author also writes about shorba (meat soup) being distributed amongst guest after a feast – again a custom no longer practised in contemporary Kashmir. Along with shorba, guest would be offered with sweets or halwa after a feast, much like our own tradition of partaking firini after a communal meal. Confectioners, then, who were known as Qandi (from qand=sweet) would prepare sweets, mostly based on honey. Sweets and candies like shireeni (crystallised sugar candy), halwa etc were also widely eaten in the Kashmir of the Sultans.

Food Culture

Aside from the food we also get a basic understanding of the ‘food culture’ of medieval Kashmir from the Tahfatul. Food would be served on dastarkhwan (table cloth) and served in tabak (copper plate, maybe a forerunner of traem of today), which in grand ceremonies would be covered with sarposh.

Also, it seems that during major religious feasts, invited guests linked with the religious classes would eat a few mouthfuls from their plates, the plate being wrapped in cloth and sent back home through a servant. This is a tradition which has got a new lease of life in Kashmir- where many, if not all do carry extra food back home from a feast.

Mughal Records

The next reference to food in Kashmir is from Mughal emperor Jahangir (d 1627) who in Tuzuk is dismissive about Kashmiri food, writing, “The chief food of the people of Kashmir is rice, but it is inferior. They boil it fresh and allow it to get cold and then eat it. It is not the custom to put salt into rice. They boil vegetables…throw in a little salt….(and some) put a little walnut oil in vegetables. They also use cow-oil (roghan). It is not custom to eat bread (nan)”.

Jahangir’s reference seems to be truer about the life and eating habits of the ‘common masses’. Yet, progressively under the Mughals and then under Afghans, as Kashmir’s cultural contacts with both Central Asia, Persia and mainland South Asia extended, the contours of Kashmir’s culinary heritage also expanded- giving us our national cuisine: wazwan.

Due to Covid, the wazwan is served on separate plates rather than on tramis. Image Source: Internet

The wazwan of today is an assorted arrangement of different dishes inherited from different cultures, re-imagined and reworked to our culinary delight. The rich, Abi Ghost of Kashmir owes its origin as a ‘poor man’s food’ in its native Iran. This fusion of different foods and tastes to a uniquely Kashmir taste bud, resulting in wazwan, also owes a big debt to Mughals, and those numerous traders who operated from Srinagar down till mid part of the nineteenth century. These included only Persians, but also Armenian, and Georgian merchants as well as traders nearer home from Yarkand and Kashgar. And, together they helped in crafting a uniquely Kashmiri cuisine, which though includes some vegetarian specialities, nevertheless remains rooted as a mutton cuisine par excellence!

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