Kashmiri cuisine is based on the ancient traditions of the north east Asian Kashmir area. The Rigveda mentions the meat eating traditions of this area while the ancient Kashmiri epic, the Nilamat Purana, records that Kashmiris were heavy meat eaters, a habit that persists to this day.
The most notable ingredient in today’s Kashmir cuisine is mutton, of which there are over 30 varieties.
Kashmiri Pandits have had the earliest influence on Kashmiri cuisine. Although Pandits in other parts of the subcontinent do not normally eat meat, the Pandits of Kashmir have always eaten all meat except beef, which is strictly forbidden. Since most Kashmiri Muslims are converts from this Pandit community, the Kashmiri Muslim Wazwan also never uses Beef. This is in keeping with the age old Kashmiri tradition known as Kashmiriyat, much of the cuisine is similar between Kashmiri Pandits and Kashmiri Muslims. The wazwans of Kashmiri Muslims had a strong emphasis on goat, whereas Kashmiri Pandits prefer Lamb. The epic Nilamat Purana records that the Brahmins of Kashmir have always been heavy eaters of lamb and mutton.
The two most important saints of Kashmir, Lalleshwari and Sheikh Noor-ud-din Wali were actually vegetarians for spiritual reasons. Meat is cooked in Kashmiri festivals and forms an extremely important part of Kashmiri identity. Some noted Kashmiri Pandit dishes include:
“Qabargaah” (Kashmiri Muslims commonly refer to this dish as Tabakhmaaz)
Matschgand, lamb meatballs in a gravy tempered with red chillies
Monji Haak/Gogji Haak
Mujh Gaad, a dish of radishes with a choice of fish.
“Shaem”, which is similar to Goshtaba
Qeleeya, a delicate preparation of lamb cooked in a milk-based gravy incorporating bay leaves and turmeric.
Rogan Josh, a lamb based dish, cooked in a gravy seasoned with liberal amounts of Kashmiri chillies (in the form a dry powder), ginger (also powdered), asafoetida and bay leaves among other ingredients. Due to the absence of onions, yoghurt is used as a thickener, and also to reduce the heat and marry the spices in the gravy. This dish is the most commonly cooked dish using lamb meat in Kashmiri cuisine.
Syun Pulaav (Meat Pulao)
Yakhni, a yoghurt-based mutton gravy without turmeric or chilli powder. The dish is primarily flavoured with bay leaves, cloves and cardamom seeds. This is a mild, subtle dish eaten with rice often accompanied with a more spicy side dish.
Tea drinking forms a very important of Kashmiri Pandit cuisine and often takes the place of dessert. Two important types of tea are Kehwa (sweet green tea with cardamom and almonds) and Sheer Chai (referred as Noon Chai by Kashmiri Muslims, it is a salty pink tea with almonds). Such teas are usually taken with baked breads such as Kulcha, Katlam, Roth or Bakarkhani in Kashmiri Pandit cuisine.
Kashmiri Pandit cuisine has very few dessert dishes or sweets. More importance is therefore given to the main course and tea and not to the dessert.
The Kashmir Valley is noted for its bakery tradition. On the picturesque Dal Lake in Kashmir or in downtown Srinagar, bakery shops are elaborately laid out. Bakers sell various kinds of breads with a golden brown crusts topped with sesame and poppy seeds. tsot and tsochvoru are small round breads topped with poppy and sesame seeds, which are crisp and flaky, sheermal, baqerkhani (puff pastry), lavas (unleavened bread) and kulcha are also popular. Girdas and lavas are served with butter.
Harissa is a popular meat preparation made for breakfast, it is slow cooked for many hours, with spices and hand stirred.
A Wazwan is a multi-course meal in the Kashmiri Muslim tradition and treated with great respect. Its preparation is considered an art. Almost all the dishes are meat-based (lamb, chicken, fish, but never Beef). It is considered a sacrilege to serve any dishes based around pulses or lentils during this feast. The traditional number of courses for the wazwan is thirty-six, though there can be fewer. The preparation is traditionally done by a vasta waza, or head chef, with the assistance of a court of wazas, or chefs.
Wazwan is regarded by the Kashmiri Muslims as a core element of their culture and identity. Guests are grouped into fours for the serving of the wazwan. The meal begins with a ritual washing of hands, as a jug and basin called the tash-t-nari is passed among the guests. A large serving dish piled high with heaps of rice, decorated and quartered by four seekh kabab, four pieces of meth maaz, two tabak maaz, sides of barbecued ribs, and one safed kokur, one zafrani kokur, along with other dishes. The meal is accompanied by yoghurt garnished with Kashmiri saffron, salads, Kashmiri pickles and dips. Kashmiri Wazwan is generally prepared in marriages and other special functions. The culinary art is learnt through heredity and is rarely passed to outside blood relations. That has made certain waza/cook families very prominent. The wazas remain in great demand during the marriage season from May-October.
Kashmiri Chai, Noon Chai, or Sheer Chai
Kashmiris are heavy tea drinkers. The word “noon” in Kashmiri language means salt. The most popular drink is a pinkish colored salted tea called “noon chai.” It is made with black tea, milk, salt and bicarbonate of soda. The particular color of the tea is a result of its unique method of preparation and the addition of soda. The Kashmiri Pandits more commonly refer to this chai as “Sheer Chai.” The Kashmiri Muslims refer to it as “Noon Chai” or “Namkeen Chai” both meaning salty tea.
Noon Chai or Sheer Chai is a common breakfast tea in Kashmiri households and is taken with breads like baqerkhani brought fresh from the sufi, or bakers. Often, this tea is served in large samovars.
At marriage feasts, festivals, and religious places, it is customary to serve kahwah – a green tea made with saffron, spices, and almonds or walnuts. Over 20 varieties of Kahwah are prepared in different households. Some people also put milk in kahwah (half milk and half kahwah). This chai is also known as “Maugal Chai” by some Kashmiri Pandits from the smaller villages of Kashmir. Kashmiri Muslims and Kashmiri Pandits from the cities of Kashmir refer to it as Kahwah or Qahwah.