MAJORITY of people living across India have a wrong notion about the food habits of Kashmiris. They perceive that Kashmiri people only eat meat based dishes. The reason for this misapprehension and confusion is massive promotion and publicity given to our Non-vegetarian food especially Wazwan and the non-availability of good vegetarian food in Kashmiri restaurants.
A majority of tourists visiting Kashmir eat vegetarian food but don’t get authentic Kashmiri vegetarian food at restaurants. Vegetarian menus are restricted to Punjabi cuisine and rely on borrowed dishes like Dal Makhani or Aaloo Parathas. This is misperceived as the ‘authentic’ vegetarian food of Kashmir. This also promotes the idea that Kashmiri cuisine does not have any vegetarian options. Some fine dine restaurants have now incorporated Dum Aloo or Nader Yakhin.
Recently,I got an opportunity to present our vegetarian food to a larger audience in Kutch Gujarat at a grand cultural event. However, no well coordinated effort has been made to explore the true scope of Kashmir’s vegetarian delights.
Forest Food Festivals
The idea of organising Forest Food Festival struck my mind in June 2015 when I accompanied Mr O P Sharma the then Additional Principal Chief Conservator Forests (APCCF) to Basant Wodder forests near Doodh Pathri in Budgam. We visited the area in connection with commemorating the World Environment Day on June 5th 2015. A group of students from a local private school and their teachers were also accompanying us. When Mr Sharma spoke about various forest herbs and edible green leafy vegetables like Hand, Krech, Obej, Pamb Haakh, Lissa , mushrooms, I suggested that we organise a small food festival wherein we can cook and serve the same leafy forest vegetables and mushrooms to people.
In August 2015, when O P Sharma was posted as Director Environment, Ecology & Remote Sensing J&K Govt, a forest food festival was organised. On Oct 4th 2015, first-ever Forest Food Festival was finally organised at Srinagar by the Department of Environment Ecology and Remote Sensing in association with Centre for Conservation of Culture and Heritage (CCCH) Kashmir and Institute of Hotel Management -IHM Srinagar.
Faculty of IHM Srinagar especially Chef Yaseen prepared lots of dishes from forest herbs and mushrooms including other Kashmiri vegetables like Makai Halwa, Hand Parotha, Maval Cookies, Soi Soup etc. Before these dishes were prepared, we had several brainstorming sessions at IHM about the food items, soups, and desserts that could be prepared. Nusrat Jahanara Chairperson Centre for Conservation of Culture and Heritage (CCCH) a small NGO working on promotion of forest and Kashmiri veg food , late Ramzan Khan Sahib from Gurez, Chef Yaseen including this author shared many ideas for a week or so. We had brought lots of herbs from Gurez and Ramzan Khan sahib played a great role in that.
In July 2019, the Environment Ecology & Remote Sensing Department in collaboration with CCCH held two more Forest Food Festivals in Yusmarg and Gurez.
Serving Kashmiri veg food in Kutch
From 2018, the Living Learning and Design Centre (LLDC) Kutch Gujarat has been organising winter festival. LLDC is an Institution set up by Shrujan Trust in Kutch district of Gujarat. LLDC has a beautiful campus situated on 9 acres of land in the Ajrakpur village in the outskirts of Bhuj city. LLDC & Shrujan Trust has been working with the handicraft workers for more than 50 years. The LLDC has set up a good team of researchers who do a lot of research and documentation on craft work of Kutch.
The winter festival could not be held in 2021 and 2022 due to COVID pandemic but this year LLDC decided to hold the event after 2 years. The main highlight of the event was an exhibition on pastoralists organised under the banner of Living Lightly which is a dedicated organisation run by Sushma Ayengar who has been working on Pastoralist communities for the last many decades. Sushma organises Living Lightly exhibitions across India from last 7 years wherein life and culture of these shepherds is promoted and propagated.
I had actually been invited by Sahjeevan, a Kuch based NGO working for pastoralists and I was asked to accompany some youth from the Chopan community (Kashmiri shepherds). As Sahjeevan coordinator Ramesh Bhatti was familiar with my cooking skills and requested me to prepare Kashmiri food during the 4 day event.
Some of my friends who know cooking tagged along with me. Before leaving for Kutch we shopped in Bohri Kadal of old city and purchased some exotic dry vegetables, spices and lentils (daals) like Rajma, Rumah, Pran (Shallots), Ale-Hachhe (sun dried bottle gourd), Wangan Hachhe (sun dried Brinjal), Ruwangan Hachee, Bamchoonth Hache (Sun Dried Quince apple) and dry fruits among other things. During the festival, our group served as many as ten Kashmiri vegetarian dishes like Rumah Dal, Rajma Dal, Rumah Masala, Rajma Salad/Chat, Bamchhonth Halwa, Gogee Haakh, Nader Pakoda, Nader Fried Rice, Pran Fried Rice, Makai Halwa with desi ghee and walnuts, badam and much more.
When I was asked to serve Kashmiri vegetarian food during the event at LLD campus in Kutch, I hadn’t expected such a positive response. The food was loved by all. We love our Wazwan. However, we must also be cheerleaders of some of our own authentic vegetarian options.