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But where's the dal?" wail a distressingly high proportion of customers to Tarami in Delhi's Hauz Khas Village. Tarami is one of the many new Kashmiri restaurants that have cropped up in the capital in the last six months. And though there are a modest number of takers for Kashmiri cuisine, first-timers expect it to be a clone of the other famous North Indian cuisine: Punjabi. Which is why Joy Singh and Rahul Kundan of Tarami are constantly brainstorming for ways to keep Kashmiri food pure and untainted, and yet accede to popular requests.
There are two schools of thought on the sudden visibility of Kashmiri food in Delhi's restaurants, party caterers and home delivery scene. One school swears that many regional Indian cuisines are making their way into the limelight and Kashmiri cuisine is just a manifestation of this. The other school of thought staunchly believes that what we are seeing is just a blip on the horizon and that the tide may turn any time, edging out Kashmiri food and bringing in another temporary fad.
In the last two decades or so, Kashmiri cuisine was represented in Delhi by Ahad Sons, the first wazas to move here, and Chor Bizarre, the pan-Indian restaurant with a modest percentage of Kashmiri dishes. Somewhere along the way, Curry Leaf by Moet had started keeping three or four popular wazwan dishes. Simultaneously, the quorum was formed by housewives who cooked home-style dishes of the Valley from their domestic kitchens. By happenstance, these ladies: Neelam Sihouta and Anita Agha among others, are from the Pandit community, whose cuisine is slightly different from the Kashmiri food of the Muslims.
Over the last six months, plenty has happened in the Kashmiri food and beverage space. For one, Kashmiri Kitchen has opened a restaurant which itself has broken all records. It is the brainchild of a mother and daughter, in a strictly male-dominated profession that is hereditary to boot. Pearl and Qamar Khan stumbled into the business on the advice of friends who would ooh and aah at the food in their house in Delhi when Pearl was a PR professional. "You must open a restaurant, " they would coax her, and to everyone's surprise, including her own, she did. That was when mother Qamar came dashing to the capital to give her daughter a dressing down for daring to fly in the face of tradition. Pearl not only deflected her mother's rage, she convinced her to be a part of the business.
True to form, Kashmiri Kitchen started out as a catering service and only became a restaurant some six months ago. "There are three variables in the Kashmiri restaurant business: the customer, the cook and the lamb, " explains Pearl Khan, with the air of a veteran. "For most other cuisines, the majority of customers come from within that particular community, whether Korean or Bengali. For Kashmiri food, barely 15 per cent of our customers are Kashmiri. " She stresses that besides a true blue waza (male hereditary cook) from the Valley, nobody else can cook wazwan dishes. However, it's an art to snaffle a good, dependable waza in Delhi, and what's more, to retain him during the summer months.
It is probably the secret of the success of Ahad Sons, Delhi's very first Kashmiri waza, who saw the writing on the wall as early as the mid '80s and moved here to cater to society weddings, ministerial banquets and restaurant menus. Nobody wants to be quoted, but a startling high proportion of the Kashmiri dishes in pan-Indian restaurants comes from the industrial kitchen of Ahad Sons. Ditto for the Kashmiri section at catered weddings and parties. The three sons of the late Abdul Ahad are quite clear that their business has endured for as long as it has because they are industry insiders as it were. They privately scoff at the several rather dilettante attempts by engineers and hotel professionals at entering the Kashmiri food business. "All Kashmiri restaurant food is based on the wazwan in an a la carte format, and for that, it does help if you yourself are a waza, " say the brothers, not unreasonably.
Pearl and Qamar Khan of Kashmiri Kitchen, Joy Singh and Rahul Kundan (both from Jammu) of Tarami and Kousar Bhat of Cashmere all speak of the woes of obtaining lamb that has been freshly slaughtered. "The crux of our business is procuring meat within 30 minutes of being butchered. More than that, and our wazas reject it, " says Kousar Bhat with the painful wince of someone who has done battle with an intractable waza. "Ristas, gushtabas, seekh kebabs and lahabi kebabs all require hand pounded meat. They're the most popular items on any menu, but conversely they do require almost impossibly precise conditions, difficult to fulfil outside Kashmir, " he explains. It is probably the reason why so many entrepreneurs have tried and failed to replicate the incomparable flavours of Kashmir here, especially as they did so in a void, with minimal Kashmiri clientele and in settings that were far removed indeed from the Valley.
The new breed of Kashmiri restaurants feature Kashmiri carpentry: walnut wood carved chairs, wooden ceilings with geometrical patterns on cedar panels and open lattice work. There are photographs by leading Kashmiri photographers, copper samovars and the cosy interiors and warm hospitality for which the state is justly famed.
Now all that remains is for someone to scour around for a recipe for dal that will fit the North Indian palate!
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