Kashmiri wazwan fest tickles Delhi’s taste buds

By Sarwar Kashani, IANS,

New Delhi : Kashmir may be a political hotspot but its signature wazwan cuisine – a spread of at least 40, mostly spicy, non-vegetarian dishes – can make any bitterness dissipate and leave you licking your fingers.

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While the original hot and oily fare is not for the faint-hearted, the ongoing wazwan festival at south Delhi’s Hyatt Regency is a less thick, less spicy version – perhaps to cater to international tastes.

Kashmiri wazas – chefs – at the hotel are offering only a few of the traditional wazwan dishes, but the limited choice is a blessing in disguise as it helps ward off confusion for the uninitiated.

You can start with qahwa – Kashmiri tea flavoured with cardamom, cinnamon and almonds, coloured with saffron and served in round cups. While sipping it, don’t forget to ask for some crunchy bakirkhaani bread.

“You can make a whole restaurant smell fresh with this tea,” said a foreign guest.

Strictly speaking, qahwa is not wazwan. But what follows is.

As an appetizer you can have tabak maaz, a crispy lamb rib deep fried in ghee with powdered aniseeds, dry ginger powder, turmeric, asafoetida powder, powdered cinnamon, cloves and salt.

Or else have kokkar kanti – deep roasted chicken barbeque.

Abdul Qayoom, the Kashmiri chef who prepares the wazwan at Hyatt, has brought a battery of spices from his home state, including dry cockscomb flower, shallot and many kinds of chilies.

“And, yes, almonds, walnuts and lots of other dry fruits are also there,” says Qayoom, who boasts of having cooked for the wedding receptions of Bollywood stars Abhishek-Aishwarya Bachchan, Rinki Khanna and Sameer Saran.

Qayoom has inherited the art of cooking wazwan from his father who was a known chef in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir.

When talk veers to such exquisite flavours arising from a region that has been battling a 20-year-old separatist war, diner Cynthia D’Souza interrupts, “Let’s not talk politics.

“Kashmir is otherwise known for its deep, gorgeous lakes, arts and crafts and, of course, the lovely wazwan.”

Another diner quips, “Get us some rista or gushtaba.”

And sure enough it surfaces. Rista – lamb meatballs cooked in red sauce; and gushtaba – a similar dish cooked in yogurt.

“Delicious is the word. Isn’t it? Now I know why Nehru (India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru) and his family were in love with Kashmir,” says Shalini Kaul, a Kashmiri pandit woman who has been quietly savouring the food.

A Kashmiri fable has it that it was gushtaba that compelled Nehru to let accede Kashmir to India.

For anybody looking to clear his sinuses, wazwan is a cure, says chef Qayoom. “A dish called marchwangan korma, consisting of pieces of lamb cooked with tamarind and hot red pepper Kashmiri sauce definitely helps,” he asserts.

Wazwan will not disappoint vegetarians either. There is the ruwagan chaman, or cheese cooked in tomato puree; haakh – collard greens cooked in mild spices; and dum aloo.

But there is no signing off at the Hyatt without a sweet something.

“The dessert is here,” says chef Anil Khurana, the man behind the festival, bringing phirnee – semolina cooked in sweet milk with saffron, pistachio and cashew nuts. You can also try the seb ka halwa.

The festival is on till Nov 20. A meal for one is likely to cost Rs.3,000.

While Hyaat is an ideal venue for those who love five-star settings, a Kashmiri will certainly miss the traditional setting where guests are seated on the floor in groups of four and share a meal in large copper plates called the trami.

The meal usually begins by invoking the name of Allah and a ritual washing of hands in a portable basin called tasht nari, which is taken around by attendants. Chefs, dressed in white, bring each wazwan dish. This is what lends wazwan its true Kashmiri flavour.

Those on the lookout for more affordable and authentic wazwan in the Indian capital can try visiting Jammu and Kashmir House or Dilli Haat.

(Sarwar Kashani can be contacted at [email protected])