Palate blues

Arshid Malik

It has been quite a stigmatizing streak for me; five years in a row and I have not had tasted “Wazwaan” once. Even though I received dozens of invitations to marriage ceremonies and all but my work engagements outside the Valley kept me bereft, at bay and away from tasting the super delicious traditional cuisine of Kashmir. Whenever I did get the chance to visit my homeland there were no marriage ceremonies – not even a child was being circumcised in my known circles, as usually, nowadays this particular event also presents the opportunity to taste the “Wazwaan”. I have chanced upon quite a handful of tinned “Wazwaan” in the past few years but let me say it does taste stale and without the traditional cooks, the “Wazas” serving the platter there is little room for exoticism. I have quite made up my mind that the very next time an opportunity to relish the “Wazwaan” knocks on my forlorn door, I will make sure that I end up eating it lest I will go vegetarian for the rest of my life, which I do not promise but I fear that my sixth year of “abstinence” will sure break the heart of my zesty belly and it will thereof reject everything non-vegetarian under an agenda of vengeance. Oh! Nostalgia surrounds my entire being as the thumping noises of mutton being prepared for “Gushtabas and Ristas” distinctly resonates in my mind and my nostrils event upon catching the absolute fragrance of fried wild onions being “beaten to the pulp”. I am frightened I might pass out right now and do pardon me if the column I am writing ends here and now. Well, the publishers could shove in bright and pleasant pictures of “Wazwaan” delicacies to fill the rest of the page for no matter how much I write I cannot replace the real essence of the matter.

I am flooded by memories of the umpteenth number of times I gathered up with my friends to relish “Wazwaan” in the distant past (let me tell you, five years away from these delicacies spells ages for me). We were young with great appetites for anything that tasted good and when you talk of “Wazwaan” it meant a mile short of heaven. We were a guy of laborious guys who would offer assistance in all matters related to the organizing and the eventual festivity surrounding marriage ceremonies. Be it neighbors or relatives or practical nobodies we would put our best foot forward to render the entire event a “piece of cake”. It was practically good towards working up an appetite for the delicacies that awaited us. Once settled around a “Trami” (the traditional platter on which “Wazwaan” is served) we would know no boundaries. After having been in and around the arena of preparation of “Wazwaan”, helping out wherever we would, we would surely befriend the “Wazas” and while they were serving up the seven or more courses we would get additional bounty over small talk. As soon as a course would be served it would disappear as if it had never been served, so agile we were. The people serving up rice would mostly end up feeding us as platefuls of rice would “magically” vanish, much to the annoyance of the people serving. I recall certain plush marriage functions we attended where a “seven course” was talk of the past and around fourteen to fifteen dishes would be served along with pepped “chutnies” and “pulao”. While the rest of the guests would end up burping and massaging their tummies in gentle circular motions implying that they had eaten enough at the end of round eighth we would be anticipating the arrival of more than what sounded seemingly promised. To the point that a gulp of water would not find space even in our esophagus, we would not give up and almost half an hour after the end of the gigantic meal we would be found still chewing on pieces of mutton which we would have greedily stuffed into our cheeks. Oh! The glory of it all. And look at me now, grizzling for the aroma leave alone the stuff that comes for real. I am drenched to the soul in memories of the “call to battle” – the moment they ask you to assemble for the meal.

I am so yearning for “Wazwaan” that I would surely steal my way in to a ceremony and gulp down the delicacies; somebody just let me know where and when. By the thought of it I remember, almost a decade and a half ago, my uncle was getting married and we congregated as “Baaratis” at the function being hosted by his in-laws. It was a huge gathering and I guess the hosts could not even keep count. We were sipping the traditional “Qehwah”, the beamer before the bonanza, when we noticed a heated exchange of words taking place between a few of the hosts and a presumable “Baarati”. The hosts asked around if the person being “interrogated” was with us or not. None of us knew him. We told them he might be one of their own guests which sent into motion another round of enquiry now surrounding the elders in the host’s family. It turned out that no one knew this guy. By the looks of him, dressed in an immaculately ironed shiny black suit, with fine black hair woven uniquely backwards, this guy sure looked impressive. Someone among the hosts recognized this “outsider”. “He is an impostor”, the guy yelled out, adding, “he creeps into wedding parties posing as a part of the guest delegation and feeds his person illegally”. Someone jumped out of the crowd that had accumulated around the “imposter” and gave him a definitive slap on the right cheek. The guy started weeping and begged for mercy. As the hosts were gearing up to crush him like a ripe orange, some of the elders from our side urged the hosts to excuse and pardon the guy as it was ruining the mood of the festivities going on and he was hurtled out on the street followed by a resounding threat that should he ever do such a thing again in the locality he would be handed over to the police. We were laughing creepily among ourselves. But today I realize the reason behind the devious recourse he had chosen.

The holy month of Ramadhan, which is nearing completion, teaches us to abstain from overindulgences but since I have been feeding on grass-like stuff for almost half my life now Inshaallah on this Eid or later I hope to dig my teeth into some fresh meatballs, kebabs and yes my favourite “Tabakmaaz” (crisp and tender lamb rib chops melting away in clarified butter). This prolonged parting has only intensified my love for you, my beloved “Wazwaan”.

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