The meat-heavy wazwan isn’t all there is to the Valley’s culinary heritage
Some time ago when filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri wrote a presumptuous tweet proposing the idea of a vegetarian ‘wazwan’ — the traditional Kashmiri meat-based meal — social media erupted in spontaneous protests. What an oxymoron, people said. The Twitter tempest petered out in a day, but the idea that prompted the tweet is an old and enduring one, and deeply rooted in the country’s food politics.
The perception that the cuisine of Muslim Kashmiris — the ultimate embodiment of “the other” — is a meaty monolith has been shaped primarily by cultural conditioning on both sides of the socio-religious-culinary border. This is not to imply that Kashmiri food is predominantly vegetarian or that wazwan is but the figment of a carnivore’s imagination. The culinary grandeur of wazwan must indeed be experienced to be believed, but this multi-course meal isn’t all there is to the Valley’s culinary heritage.
Among the great surprises in the region’s variegated gastronomic canvas is the street food, barring the craft barbeque meats, is primarily vegetarian, bordering on vegan. These dishes have managed to hold their own despite the ubiquity of momos, golgappa and egg roll, and like native street eats the world over, speak to the region’s unique food heritage.
From masala tsot, the ultimate Kashmiri grab ’n’ go meal that consists of a lavasa bread stuffed with mashed chickpeas generously slathered with a spicy chutney, to nadur monje (lotus stem fritters) or gaer monje (deep-fried water chestnuts), and the jhal muri-reminiscent masala wari muth (wide variety of indigenous beans and wheat berries boiled with salt and spices and topped with fried onions) that’s served in paper cones, there are a plethora of snacks to choose from. And just like anywhere else in the world, these street food stalls are found in plenty in the vicinity of schools, colleges, offices, and local shrines.
For those with a sweet tooth, there is indulgence in the form of the chewy basrak, a kind of deep-fried hollow pastry coated with the sugar syrup; and shangram, deep-fried nuggets of maida, semolina, milk, sugar, and ghee. While the latter is slightly lesser known and typically enjoyed as a teatime snack in homes, basrak is the sweetmeat of choice for special occasions and, in recent times, has found iteration in plush bakeries, with the addition of premium ingredients such as khoya and nuts.
Today, many of these old-time favorites evoke fond nostalgia in the average Kashmiri. “Every day, while returning from school, we would each buy a fat masala tsot for ₹5 and saunter along, taking bites off the wrap. Even now, I find no snack quite as delicious, healthy, and easy to eat as masala tsot,” says Bilal Ahmed Dar, a resident of downtown Srinagar. “Dishes like masala tsot and basrak evoke nostalgia as well as a sense of pride in our Kashmiri identity,” says the 35-year-old businessman.
Despite the wide range of local snacks and their appeal among the Valley’s residents, these foods are yet to become mainstream à la bhelpuri or aloo tikki. Kashmiris seldom wax eloquent about their indigenous cuisine save for the mutton-dominated wazwan feast.
“We are a society driven by classism and nowhere is this more apparent than in our attitude towards our street foods,” says Owais Ashraf, a 27-year-old law student, and resident of Budgam. “Despite their popularity, these street eats remain more or less confined to bazaars next to shrines or busy marketplaces. Eating these ‘cheap’ items is looked down upon. It is this deep collective reluctance to own our food heritage that has led to many street foods languishing in anonymity,” he says.
Though the government has in recent times tried to promote Kashmiri street food as part of its tourism initiatives, residents say more proactive steps are needed. “To begin with, street foods can be included in the menu of government-run restaurants, and food kiosks can be set up at cultural festivals. The government could also invite food bloggers and influencers to sample and promote Kashmir’s street foods. Food writers and critics must create literature on the Valley’s food scene to help with awareness,” says Mohd. Azhar Abbas, 29, is a Srinagar-based entrepreneur associated with the hospitality and tourism sector.
Interestingly, large numbers of domestic tourists who visit Kashmir depend entirely on ‘Vaishno Dhabas’, the Valley’s generic non-A/C restaurants that serve all-vegetarian North Indian fare. In doing so, they miss out on local gastronomic experiences that are an integral part of travel. According to Abbas, private tour operators and travel agencies can make a difference by incorporating street food tours into tourist itineraries.
“ Wazwan isn’t all we eat, and it certainly isn’t all we have to be proud of,” says Dar with half a smile and a glint of pride in his eyes.