A heavenly Himalayan valley, a beautiful couple, the perfect hour as augured by the horoscopes, mesmerizing mystical music, a sublimely delicious banquet -- and voila! It’s a Hindu wedding in Kashmir.
Or, rather, it used to be.
Sadly, Hindus in Kashmir (called Kashmiri Pandits or Brahmins, for uncertain reasons the only caste of Hindus in the valley) fled their homeland after militant violence in the region; by the 1990s they were scattered all over the globe.
For centuries before, the lives of the majority Muslims and the tiny community of Pandits were intertwined in coexistence under an overarching peaceful ethos of Sufism. We were so close -- we spoke the same language, sang the same songs, went on some of the same pilgrimages, and most of all adored our unique cuisine.
But Kashmir’s history is punctuated by oppression, floods, famines and fires. As a result, though the valley is extremely lush and fertile, life could go from feast to famine overnight. No wonder, then, that food has always been an integral part of all Kashmiri rites of passage and that such great care was taken in its preparation.
Pandits fleeing the violence of the ‘80s may not have been able to carry their incomparable lakes, flowers and mountains with them, but they certainly are still in possession of their delectable recipes. Kashmir’s cuisine reflects its lush green paddy fields; golden mustard blossoms; lotus lakes brimming with fish; fruit and nut orchards; and yielding soil. An everyday meal in the valley would include rice, greens (leafy, collard-like haak or kohlrabi) and lamb, fish or chicken in a stew, often with vegetables. Yogurt is indispensable in the region; symbolizing longevity, it is sent as a birthday gift to breadwinners.
The combination of rice, greens and yogurt is at the heart of every Kashmiri meal. The Himalayan snow line surrounds Kashmir and this rules out vegetarianism, but even for avid carnivores, meat is never the mainstay of a meal.
At a wedding, on the other hand, there would be an endless stream of lamb dishes with different flavorings.
Celebrations began when vast shamianas (colorful canopies designed in Mogul times) were put up for the hordes of relatives.
A makeshift outdoor kitchen of mud and brick stoves went up in the backyard, leaving the chef and his minions ample space to chop, fry, boil and stir for hundreds of guests. Occasionally the crew settled down for a quiet puff at a hookah or a cup of tea prepared on the magnificent log fires.
The beauty of Kashmiri wedding dishes often lies in the tenderness and flavor acquired through slow cooking in heavy ancestral pots and pans over well-regulated fires. Some cooking pots are sealed with putty and placed on hot wood coals to acquire final touches. This sort of cooking did not happen every day, particularly for those who had settled outside Kashmir, as I had. So when my brother got married (before the diaspora) I could not wait to fly back to be part of this rare and lavish event.
I was not disappointed.
My grandmother supervised the wedding lunch. Walking by on her rounds she stopped and looking me straight in the eye said, “So, how is it? We may not live in America, but we know how to eat!”
A Kashmiri wedding is a performance and we know the choreography by heart. Wedding feasts have a lengthy and inviolable menu that every self-respecting host adheres to: lamb pullao (lamb and rice, delicately seasoned); kaliya (lamb with turmeric and yogurt); machh (meatballs in spicy red gravy); rogan josh (the classic Kashmiri lamb dish in peppery red curry); chopped lamb liver in a sour sauce; tamarind eggplant or pureed spinach with bits of lotus root; daikon radish raita; and last but never ever the least, a plate of tender haak.
The high-protein wedding meal would finish with a sweet counterpoint: phirni, a sublime incarnation of rice pudding, decorated with hand-beaten silver leaf and served in tiny terracotta bowls. It is a strange juxtaposition, silver and terracotta -- but that is Kashmir for you, a valley of extreme contrasts.