Kashmir: the first time I had seen snow was here, many moons ago, when I visited this paradise on earth, as a pre-teen during Diwali break. The enchanting valley, chinaar trees, our stay in a houseboat; all left a lasting impression on me. But what I remember most, is a lovely modest meal cooked for us by the host family of the houseboat we were staying in. It was a vegetarian meal; I remember had a preparation of lotus stem and some Saag. We had this simple meal while on a Shikara ride on Dal Lake. Truly heavenly!
Aside from that, I had recently visited an under-construction restaurant in Jaipur that specialized in Kashmiri cuisine. The owner was a wholesome lady, a friend of a friend, who had generously opened her restaurant just for us. As the carpenters polished the carved deodar wood panels, painters and electricians working towards the grand opening day, her cooks served us what was probably the most delectable feast I have ever had.
So, when it was my turn to cook, I had to rely on these few memories, a couple of friends from the region and mostly on my intuition. After my research, I narrowed down on a few dishes I wanted to serve for the 3 course dinners at the restaurant. Some of these were a part of the ceremonial meals called Wazwaan; a special meal consisting of multiple meat courses, prepared by special chefs known as Wazas. It was an ambitious undertaking but that was the whole idea behind this exercise in the first place.
I set out to stock my pantry with some ingredient I didn't have: Javitri (Mace), Saunth (Ginger Powder), Saunf powder and seeds (Fennel) , lots of Desi Ghee (Clarified butter) and Zafran (Saffron). Somehow using the Indian names of ingredients made this process even more authentic. Many recipes used Sarson ka tel or Mustard oil. It has a strong flavor and smell and I was wary of it, but nonetheless decided to stick with what it calls for.
Next visit was at my butcher's. He was extremely patient and a great guide. One of the dishes I selected was called Chicken Rista which was chicken meatballs in a onion based sauce. I had seen a videos where the Wazas pounded the meat through the night, to make it silky smooth. As alluring as this sounds, I had to improvise. Once again, my reliable butcher came to my rescue. He ran the chicken meat through his meat grinder several times until the machine spat out perfectly smooth ground chicken, just as I needed it.
As I studied these recipes, I began to get a sense of the life of the aristocracy who were instrumental in this cuisine. The cooks had the luxury of time and expensive ingredients to labor over the dishes. The meats were boiled in spices then more flavor infused with milk and saffron before finally searing them in Ghee. This was so decadent and unbelievably rich; befitting the rulers and perfectly suited for the battling the harsh wintery weather.
The day before we unveiled this cuisine at the restaurant, I was cooking into the wee hours of the morning. The process seemed endless and yet compelling. I had one last thing left to be done. I had found this recipe for spiced oil, used to finish several dishes in the Wazwaan. The red color of the Kashmiri mirch was so intoxicating that I had to make it. I wasn't confident of the process and didn't quite know what to expect. But determined to follow through, I followed it to the tee. Frying whole spices, ginger and garlic in mustard oil, adding a lot of Kashmiri chili and water, the rest of it was a waiting game. I got impatient for a moment, but released it and simply stood there, watching the ingredients do their own thing. And then suddenly, the oil and water separated magically, the oil had the most brilliant red color, infused with the aromas of the spices and my pan looked perfect. Even though this might seem as a perfectly mundane step in cooking, I had an epiphany. In that moment, I truly understood the meaning of trust; trusting that when the time is right, things fall into place. Rushing through the process is only a function of lack of trust and a play of ego. My role was simply that of an observer. In knowing that I had no control over the happenings was very empowering.
This may be a lot of philosophizing over the oil, but then that is what food does: it makes everything so poetic.
Also, this further cemented why this journey is so important for me to continue on. So long until the next region, new research and more late nights...