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.
Place the meat in a 6-quart saucepan. Add 3 cups water. In a medium bowl, mix the ginger, fennel and cumin with the yogurt and add to saucepan. Stir well. Add the cloves and 3 cardamom pods. Bring to a rolling boil, add salt, stir, reduce heat to low, cover, and cook at a good simmer until the meat is tender, about an hour.
When done, remove the meat from the gravy with a slotted spoon, and set aside in a bowl. Measure the gravy (you should have about 4 cups) and set aside.
Heat the ghee on high heat in a 6-quart saucepan. Add the bay leaf, cinnamon stick, the remaining 2 cardamom pods and the peppercorns. Stir-fry for a few seconds. Add the meat and saute until a little crisp and golden brown, about 3 to 4 minutes. Be careful, the pan contents may splatter while cooking.
Add the rice to the meat. Stir-fry briskly until the rice is well fried, about 2 minutes.
Take 2 cups of liquid from the meat gravy, and add to the rice along with 1 teaspoon salt. Stir well.
Add the saffron with its water to the rice. Stir well. Bring the rice to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover and cook for about 15 to 20 minutes until the liquid is absorbed and the rice is cooked. (After the rice, or pullao, is cooked, do not stir or you will break the grains and make it lumpy.)
Meanwhile, prepare the onions and nuts. Pour enough canola oil into a wok or deep-sided skillet to come up the sides a few inches. Heat the oil on medium-high until it shimmers (about 225 to 230 degrees with a thermometer). Deep-fry the sliced onion slowly, stirring often, for 15 to 20 minutes. The onion should fry slowly until all the moisture has evaporated and it turns reddish and crisp without burning; turn the heat down if the onions are frying too quickly. Remove the crisped onions with a slotted spoon and set aside on paper towels to drain excess oil. Do not cover, as this will make the onions soggy.
Fry the nuts in the same oil at the same heat for a few minutes until they just start to color with a slight golden hue. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside on paper towels to drain.
With a large slotted spoon, heap the pullao onto a large platter. Sprinkle onions on top of the pullao and decorate the edge with sliced eggs and nuts. Serve hot.
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