Kashmiri Haakh

Celebrated by folklore and part of staple food, the collards are as important to Kashmir’s meals as potato is to Ireland. While the land use changes are impacting the production, Shakir Mir details the process and the product

Mughli of Kawdara, Srinagar is 75-year-old. She, tends to her small garden diligently early morning. Bending over her long rows of Collard cultivars (Haakh), she selects the healthy few and snaps them free. In an hour or so, Mughli amasses a bagful and then sells it to the customers who come at her door, knocking.

Her daily produce fetches her meager Rs 200 but that’s more than just enough for this septuagenarian who nurses a nagging fear of losing the rich tradition of Collard cultivation which is teetering on the edge of extinction in this once land-rich neighborhood.

Her sons have already expressed disinterest to carry on with this work. They would rather sell off the farm or build a new home for themselves. Many in the locality already have. Mughli’s husband is a labourer. “He is too aged to continue,” she says.

Kawdara along with adjoining localities like Rajouri Kadal, Khanyar, Radpora, Hawal and Chergari Mohalla have this perennial culture where neighbors earmark a certain part of land to cultivate Collards.

Early morning, growers mount a sacksful of collards onto their cycles and then set off towards the old city, yelling for the customers. In fact, if the supply line in traced, most of the Haakh sold by the vegetable vendors comes precisely from these areas.

Collard is almost a staple for much of the Kashmir valley. It is inextricably linked to regular diet chart of locals. Haakh has a paradoxical aspect. It is one of the most sought after vegetable in the Valley. Yet that does not stop younger ones in the family to often make wry faces at the sight of it.

But if the current trend is any indication, Valley’s endeared vegetable might soon spiral into existential crises in wake of fickle weather and increased land use change.

“Twenty years ago, these houses were not here,” says a fruit vendor, pointing towards a column of buildings that have apparently replaced what earlier used to be common kitchen gardens. “Now this whole area is urbanized, leaving little room for garden culture to flourish.”

Most people involved in the gardening have been the elderly. During their youthful days, they would tend to their farms, growing Collards on a greater scale. “It was revelry,” recollects Farooq Ahmad Dar of Chergari Mohalla. “All the horse carts laden with tones of Haakh would assemble here,” he points towards area which is now a cluster of homes. “Then the sellers off loaded their produce onto the shikaras in the Nallah Mear from where it was transported to the rest of the city.”

Today, the area where the Collard cultivation takes place has shrunk. Children from the newer generation who grew up to hold the reins found it inexpedient to continue with the tradition. Instead, they built homes.

In Radpora, Kawdara, Baba Demb a common gardens still exists amidst a group of houses each owning a kanal or two. They are the remnants of what once used to be sprawling farms catering to the insatiable demand of Haakh among the residents of the old city.

If the change in land use pattern hadn’t been any worst, the vagaries of weather became the last straw on the camel’s back. Frequent rainfall and increased flood threats have dissuaded the growers. The 2014 floods inundated the parts of city including Haakh nerve centers like Kawdara. “It destroyed the seedlings,” says Zubair Ali from interiors of Saida Kadal, famous for growing the Henanz Haakh. “From the last couple of years, Dal registered an unusual phenomenon. No sooner it rained that the water levels rose abruptly and drowned the cultivations. When it happened again and again, we rather thought abandoning the practice.”

For Dal dwellers, rising water is not the only problem. “Government has taken a strong stance against us,” says Mohammad Yousuf of Ching Mohalla. “We are living here for decades, yet they keep coming to expel us from our homes.”

Their expulsion from the areas surrounding Dal hasn’t come without the economic implications. Many of them have simply parted ways with Collard cultivation. Perhaps that explains why Haakh prices often skyrocket, catching the consumers by surprise.

“We know that it has gone as high as Rs 80 per kg,” says Prof Nayeema Jabeen of Division of Vegetable Sciences at SKUAST-K. “There is a veritable crisis because growers have been
increasing shifting towards cultivating cash crops like Cabbage. That’s because it has market across India while as Haakh does not have.”

Prof Jabeenis presiding over an initiative by the SKUAST that envisages enriching the diversity of Collards grown across Kashmir. “There is a summer Kale and winter Kale,” she explains. “We have here almost five types of Kale or Haakh; Aanchari, HeanzHakh, GM Dari, Khanyari and Kawdari. Heanz Hakh is a perennial crop while Aanchari and GM Dari are cold tolerant. The rest are summer Kale.”

Of all these, Kawdari are considered to be best because its leaves are more puckered. “More the puckering of the leaf, better the quality,” Jabeen says.

Apparently, Khanyari is not as puckered and Kawdari. “In summers temperatures shoot up prompting Haakh to retain more water content due to its puckered shape, and hence it’s quite soft and moist.”

Aanchari grown in peri-urban areas has larger and succulent stems preferable for fermentation in order to produce pickle. “Heanz Haakh can survive sub-zero temperatures.”

SKUAST students brought different genotypes, evaluated them and some of the varieties are in the pipeline. Bakhtoor Sagh, high altitude areas leaves highly serrated, no better in taste but they survive in harsh winters for enriching the diversity.

SKUAST is in way has reintroduced the Kale. Selected and recommended to be grown under Kashmiri conditions. It’s a temperate crop. Quality would not be that better outside. Here in winters temperature gets subzero and its TSS content increases. When TSS sugar content increases, starch carbohydrate ratio also increases.

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