Kashmir was heavily snowed in again this month. Layers of snow covered rooftops, lawns, orchards and roads. People were left housebound, and the Valley itself was cut off from the rest of the country for a few days.
Winters alter people’s everyday routines, and this is especially true of food habits. Winter is the time when the narrow but well-lit Gaad Kocha or Fish Lane in Srinagar’s historic Zaina Kadal area sees an unusual buzz as it gears up for its cold-weather friends. It’s been famous as the capital of sundried vegetables for centuries now, and as the temperature plunges, Gaad Kocha revs up.
Stacked in huge sacks
The strong smells of local spices and dried vegetables hit you as soon as you come close. They are all stacked in huge sacks and put out on the shopfronts. The market looks as if it were stuck in a time warp.
“I start stocking up on sundried vegetables from the villages by the end of autumn. Before the 90s, even households in Srinagar would sell their sundried vegetables to wholesalers here; it was like a cottage industry. Over time, the practice of sun-drying vegetables at home has died down. But people still stock here to buy them from us every winter,” says the 78-year-old Nazeer Ahmad, a shopkeeper at Zaina Kadal.
Unique winter cuisine
Every year, the Valley gets landlocked for at least three months, beginning December. This is the time a unique cold-weather cuisine comes into its own.
Dishes made of sundried tomatoes and bottle gourd, dried aubergines, lentils, turnips, radish leaves and dandelion greens, quince and spinach come into their own in the sub-zero temperatures.
The process is simple: the vegetables are peeled and chopped, salt is applied as preservative, then they are put out in the bright sun till all their water evaporates. They are then packed up for the winter months.
“Our mothers and grandmothers had mastered the art of making delicious foods from these sundried ingredients,” says Zahid G. Muhammad, author of the book Srinagar: My City, My Dreamland. “The dishes were time-tested. There were ducks and mallards prepared with handh (dried dandelion), shredded or minced meat with dried quince, eggs with tomatoes.” Handh or dried dandelion is cooked with chicken and meat.
Garlands of greens
Until recently, come autumn and you would see practically every home in the Valley with garlands of vegetables hanging from the sun-facing windows. The custom is still prevalent, but perhaps not as much as before. Red chilli and dried turnip garlands are vivid from a distance.
Some of these were also essential to Sufi Urs, the days of remembrance of the saints. During the Urs of the Mughal-era saint, Hazrat Sheikh Dawood from Batamaloo, for instance, many people abstain from meat and only eat sundried turnips. According to legend, during Dawood’s times, it was sundried turnips that helped the land come through a famine.
And then there’s that famous breakfast meat dish that keeps the Valley’s citizens tough enough to fend off the cold. Made only during the three months of winter, the high-calorie harissa is served in shops with special seating arrangements. A huge copper vessel is kept underground with a fire beneath it. The diners squat on raised wooden platforms and gather around for a cosy binge with friends and family.
Harissa came from Central Asia many centuries ago, and is served piping hot with local bread. Most of the old city shops that sell the dish have to take advance orders because it is in much demand.
“It is prepared overnight. The copper vessel is filled with rice and meat, which is first pulverised, and then stirred the whole night through,” says Haji Ali Muhammad, a shop owner in the old city.