May 24, 2013

Koshur Saal, Kashmiri Cuisine at Hornby’s Pavilion, ITC, Mumbai

If you’re a Kashmiri living in Bombay or are interested in Kashmiri cuisine, you’ve until 26 May to sample Chef Suman Kaul’s preparations for dinner at ITC Grand Central’s Hornby’s Pavilion. 

Food is an occasion to connect, with self, and with people. It’s a reason to explore traditions, invest in a culture that shaped the cuisine, and revel in the happiness that appreciation of patrons brings to the chef, in this instance Mrs. Suman Kaul of ITC Kakatiya currently in charge of Kashmiri Food Festival at ITC Grand Central.

Unlike Punjabi cuisine that’s found in every nook and corner restaurant around Mumbai, served up to each cook’s own reading of the recipe, Kashmiri cuisine is conspicuous by its near total absence in roadside restaurants with the exception of what passes of as Kashmiri pulao, regular pulao you’d expect to find at restaurants, only this one is prepared with smattering of fruits that varies depending on what’s available in the restaurant kitchen on the day. The Kashmiri pulao has been my only introduction to Kashmiri cuisine, one I suspected is Kashmiri in name only.

I was looking forward to the opportunity to find out what the Kashmiri pulao actually tasted like at Koshur Saal, the Kashmiri cuisine festival currently underway at ITC Grand Central’s Hornby’s Pavilion (17th – 26th May, 2013), to which we were invited to partake of Kashmiri culinary delights, except the Kashmiri pulao was not on the menu the day of our visit, having featured on the menu the day before!

So I suppose I’ll have to wait for another day, another time to find out. Kashimiri pulao aside, there was much else on offer, none of which I had heard of before let alone taste any, and it was as much a learning experience for the palate as it was an evening of getting to know Suman Kaul and her husband over dinner along with Arundhati, where they kept plying us with Kashmiri food and stories of food.

“My grandmother, Sati Razdan,” said Suman Kaul when I asked her of the person who got her interested in cooking. “We’re from Srinagar,” she said. “We had our house there. That was before we had to leave Kashmir,” she continued, her voice trailing off abruptly at what must be memories of a land lost, of memories orphaned by a virulent campaign that significant sections of  Kashmiri Muslims waged to get the Pandits, Kashmir’s original inhabitants insofar as religious heritage is concerned, out of the valley.

At one level, stepping into Hornby’s Pavilion for Koshur Saal was about solidarity with Kashmiri Pandit heritage that has survived the jihadi onslaught on their identity. And in sharing their cuisine and interacting with the wonderful couple, Mr. and Mrs. Kaul, it was about bringing home a better understanding of a cuisine, and by consequence, the people for, food does define ethnic identity in many ways.  Here I leave my ‘pen’ aside and let the other take over.


There is no love sincerer than the love of food.”

           ~ George Bernard Shaw

Synonymous with Kashmir’s picturesque beauty is its aperitive native cuisine more so the Kashmiri Pandit Cuisine. From the land of saffron and red chillies comes Koshur Saal at The Hornby’s Pavilion at ITC Grand Central. On their invitation we visited them for a special Kashmiri Pandit culinary experience. Authentic Kashmiri food was served, with recipe which dates back to hundreds of years and ITC Grand Central is one place which has never compromised on quality. Some ingredients like collard greens for Haak, the famous Red Cherries of Kashmir and fish used for Tsok Gaad (fish in tamarind sauce) which are not available in Mumbai were transported from Srinagar to my surprise.

Festival had a sumptuous Kashmiri buffet selection for vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike, featuring a fresh selection of Murg Sufyani Tikka and Veg Shammi Kebab accompanied with mint chutney and Sattaras (Lamb Soup). 

There was a carving buffet station for freshly made Green Apple and Potato Fritters (pakoras). Green apples are a Kashmiri speciality and they were perfectly thin sliced and battered in gram flour to deep fry and get a unique juicy crispy texture to them.

For the main course the la carte menu had both vegetarian and non vegetarian dishes which were without onion and garlic which is a speciality of Kashmiri cuisine. The gravies are pretty hassle free with usage of hung curd, sometimes tomatoes and occasionally tamarind for sourness. "Preparing gravies in Kashmiri cuisine is a lengthy process as they are simmered for hours with ambrosial flavour of spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, aniseed, fennel powder, cumin seeds, saffron, dry ginger, turmeric and to top it all hing (asafoetida)," Chef Suman Kaul exclaimed with a twinkle in her eye before continuing, "hing to hamari jaan hai as it gives the required flavour to the slowly simmered non-veg dishes."

For the vegetariano in me the buffet had a lot to offer. My favourite was the Nadur Yakhni, i.e. lotus stem in yoghurt. This delicacy was perfectly sober, crunchy and juicy, with a vinegarish taste. Guess the taste came from yogurt simmered for good few hours with spices. Hedder Aluro (mushrooms cooked with potatoes in kashmiri style) was a lovely combination of two vegetables. 

Dum Monje (knol khol in kashmiri style) had a distinctive flavour and is one of the first European vegetables grown in India and it grows well in kashmir valley region. The Kurkure Bhindi (crispy ladyfingers) were so crispy and fried to perfection in mustard oil. For cottage cheese lovers there was Tomato Chammar (paneer cooked in tomato gravy).

For the meat eaters there was the most famous Kashmiri dish Nainey Qualiya (lamb in yellow gravy Kashmiri style), Kabargarh (lamb ribs marinated and fried in ghee).Chicken even not  quintessentially Kashmiri, has slowly gained acceptance with youngsters. Gandee Kokur (chicken with onion) is worth a try according to  Chef Kaul.

The staple diet of every Kashmiri is rice, the most preferred being the dense, slightly sticky grained variety. Rich and redolent with the flavour of the spices used there was Nainey Pulao ( rice cooked with lamb in Kashmiri style) for the meat eaters and the perfectly cooked steam rice for the veggie in me was on the menu of the special buffet at ITC grand central.

On the sweet note there was the all time favourite Shufta which is a lavish assortment of dry fruits mixed with honey, sugar and saffron and a mesmerising dish called Zuk-e-Shahi which was khoya dumplings soaked in sweetened milk.

It's been a long day for Suman Kaul but the prospect of introducing her native cuisine to the city and have  visitors acquire a taste for it must be a satisfying experience. Back home in Kashmir, the Pandits after returning home on a tired cold day would've had their Kehwah (sweet green tea with almonds and cardamom) post which they would gather for their dinner and at the end of the meal would sip Sheer chai (salted pink tea with almonds), more of a digestive drink, before inching toward the end of the day. The rest of us non-Kashmiris, returning home from this outing would've no such luck. I make a mental note of checking out Sheer chai someday.

"At any given time we would've 10-15 people gathering for food at our place, to taste my grandma's cooking," Mrs. Kaul told us of her relatives visiting their place in Srinagar, remembering her time in Kashmir before they had flee for their lives. "I've never been back there after we had to leave Kashmir."

Mrs. Kaul credited her husband for unflinching support through her career. At the Koshur Saal, they relished the opportunity of meeting fellow Kashmiris over dinner at Hornby's Pavilion. I'm sure many stories will have been exchanged of things back 'home', of food, of memories from Kashmir, wistful and poignant.   

May 05, 2013

Kali Rides

That evening in Calcutta we wandered aimlessly among people and before long I found myself seeking the boats that’d take Durga home.

But as I walked towards the ghat on the river, the waters pulled away from me as if intimidated by my presence, retreating slowly but surely, pushing at the land on the other side until they could push no more. Confused, I paused and wondered - How was I culpable?

That’s until I saw Kali riding on the banks.

Then I understood.