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Of turnip necklaces and fussy tomatoes
The first time I set foot in Kashmir was the autumn of 1987. Instead of noticing the stunning scenery, I was riveted by the windows of houses. Most of the windows, especially those in rural Kashmir, were strung with drying vegetables. Depending on which part of the Valley I was in, there were blood red chillies and turnips strung attractively on twine like edible necklaces. Spinach greens were spread on cloth in courtyards in front of houses and rows of precisely slit aubergines were suspended, somewhat incongruously, from clotheslines. Photographing whatever I saw was on my agenda on that particular trip, so I didn't wonder very much about how these preserved vegetables were going to be cooked.
Back home in Delhi, I noticed that my Kashmiri neighbours would dry modest amounts of vegetables from the windows of their first floor flat. There would be a turnip 'necklace' or two along with tomatoes cut in half and spread on a complicated patchwork of newspapers that were laid on bed sheets that were in turn, carefully arranged on the tiny square of grass that was their terrace garden. Without the exposed wood window frames and burnt brick walls of Kashmir, our neighbour's efforts were hardly worthy of a photograph, but the sight was an oddity in Nizamuddin West in the 1980s. The joint family with at least ten ladies of all ages seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time and effort on tending to the vegetables. The tomatoes had to have a full-time chaperone, one who would turn them over individually two or three times a day and who would shoo away crows. A few years later, I married a Kashmiri, and what used to be a curiosity became an annual ritual in our house too.
The practice of drying vegetables was brought about by Kashmir's severe winters. The Jammu-Srinagar road - the only road link between Kashmir and the rest of country - would be snowed under and closed to traffic. Naturally, the supply of vegetables was suspended for indefinite periods. The only way to survive was to be self-sufficient. Our three-storey house in the Old City of Srinagar contained enormous walk-in closets with spices, pulses, rice and groceries to last a month.
However, the tradition is gradually becoming redundant. One reason is that the Jammu-Srinagar highway has become an all-weather road that is rigorously maintained. When it does snow, the precipitation is cleared away in a matter of hours. The road is seldom closed for more than two or three days a year. Hence, vegetables from the plains are regularly carried to the Valley. And global warming has meant that Kashmir is not as prone to heavy snowfall as it was a few decades ago. This means that vegetables can be grown within the Valley itself. The upshot is that when Kashmiris want to break the monotony of meat, their staple, they can buy fresh vegetables from the market. This may well be advantageous, but the sheer pleasure of sitting down to a meal of piping hot rice and dried aubergines cooked with dried tomatoes will be lost forever. Ask any card-carrying Kashmiri what he or she misses most about the taste of home and the first thing will invariably be gogji ara (turnip necklace is how dried turnips are referred to).
Come September, we would send my father-in-law off to the market to buy up every tomato on sale. September and October are the months when the indigenous tomatoes of Kashmir make their appearance in markets. The trick was in deciding the precise day the price would be at its lowest and then raiding the neighbourhood market a few minutes before the rest of the mohalla did. We would do the same for the thin variety of aubergines, fenugreek and spinach leaves and turnips.
Drying vegetables over a week so that most, if not all, of the moisture is gone, intensifies their flavour. Some have to be reconstituted in hot water;others don't. The general rule is that dried vegetables - collectively known as hokh syun - are either cooked in combination with each other, or with a daal, lamb, chicken or eggs that are first boiled and then fried. Dried vegetables are never combined with fresh vegetables. In our family we go the extra mile by slicing onions and drying them in order to enrich our winter vegetable preparations.
Eggs that have been boiled and then fried are cooked with sun-dried tomatoes or daal. Al hach (dried bottle gourd) and wangan hach (dried aubergine) are cooked with onion and may be combined with meat. Handh, as chicory root is known in Kashmiri, is dried and cooked with chicken famously in the house of a new mother. It is believed to generate heat in the body that's beneficial for both mother and newborn. The moist spice cake called ver that is - or used to be at any rate - pounded in every household in the Valley, is used in generous quantities during the winter months. The combination of shallots, chillies and spices is as delicious as it is warming.
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