It is 12 degrees Celsius when the six of us reach Younis Gulzar Malik’s residence at 8 pm, but the welcome we receive is a warm one. As we settle by the fireplace in the guest room, Younis’ eight-year-old younger son, Essa, peeps in, gives us a pleasant smile and disappears.
Then his elder son, 11-year-old Ibrahim, arrives to greet us, followed by a domestic help with a tash (jug) and naeer (bowl). The bowl is set in front of me, and warm water poured so I can wash my hands before the feast.
Younis, proprietor of Alhabib Travels, has been in the travel and tourism industry for over two decades. His is a joint family: he lives with his parents and his elder brother’s family.
A tray bearing traditional silver plates makes its way into the room, each with a portion of basmati rice topped with blobs of methi maaz (minced mutton gravy cooked with methi leaves and spices), a six-inch-long Kashmiri seekh kebab and tabak maaz glazed with ghee.
Tabak maaz, says Younis, is a speciality dish made from lamb ribs, cut longitudinally. The ribs are boiled in water with some fennel seeds, salt, garlic and turmeric. This is then fried in ghee till it becomes crisp and light brown. It requires immense patience to make tabak maaz, says Younis; it has to be cooked to perfection on very low heat.
My host admits that the seekh kebab was ordered from a restaurant. It is a tedious to prepare this kebab, for which boneless meat is ground in a mixer, sprinkled generously with cardamom powder, black cumin seeds, saffron, coriander, salt, red chilli powder and turmeric, then ground gently again. Eggs are added to keep the kebab moulds in shape around a skewer. The kebabs are then roasted over low charcoal fire until done.
The famous rogan josh arrives next, in style. This dish holds a prominent place in the wazwan: Tender lamb meat is preferred, and its bright red colour is derived from the famous red chillies of Kashmir. The blend of spices — fennel, pepper, cardamom, clove and cinnamon — is subtle, and the aroma of ginger, garlic and onion engulfs the room.
I devour the meat in no time, and when I look up, Younis is waiting ready to serve goshtaba mutton balls.
This, again, is an iconic Kashmiri dish. His wife Rafiya has mastered this dish over time, he informs me, beaming. He goes on to explain the process involved — Rafiya being too caught up in the kitchen to do so herself. Usually, they buy two kilograms of meat for this dish, all the bones are separated and boiled in water, and this water is saved. The meat is cut into small pieces and pounded with a wooden hammer on a special kind of stone.
Lamb rules the roost
“During the pounding, a lot of white veins will appear and need to be removed. We pound the meat until it becomes soft, adding salt, black cardamom and some fat to blend the spices during the act. Pounding gives texture and taste. This meat is then moulded into balls and dropped into lukewarm water, which has been infused with black cardamom and salt.
The mutton balls are cooked in this water, then placed in a curd-based gravy (yakhni). A small portion of the water used to boil the bones is added to this. Even though a lot of spices are added to this gravy, what gives it a unique aroma are the dried mint leaves added towards the end.”
Even as I listen to this description, I am served yet another dish: rista mutton ball curry. Its preparation is similar to the goshtaba, but the gravy here is spicy. I also get to taste a vegetarian dish: paneer cooked in tomato and spiced mildly. A minimum of seven and a maximum of 26 dishes are served in a Kashmiri wazwan, and the cuisine predominantly uses lamb meat.
At the end of it all comes the steaming hot kahwa: a mild aroma of saffron, a few granules of almonds, the sweetness of honey. But where is the lady of the house, the one who prepared the elaborate wazwan? Younis finally introduces his wife Rafiya Malik, who looks visibly exhausted after the nearly eight hours she spent in the kitchen. My first evening in Kashmir turned out to be one of the most memorable.
The writer was in Srinagar at the invitation of Department of Tourism, Jammu and Kashmir