Thursday, March 25, 2010

Wazwan: Our food fiesta

Fall in Kashmir is an utterly pleasant time. The airs change as if touched by the flapping wing of a bottle-green angel on his way to the sky. There is mild breeze in the tall mosque spires, the undulating nets of fisher folk and the quiet branches of the majestic oaks. The harvest air of pastures. The leaves, an angry shade of crimson, fall off the trees to strew the ground beneath. Orange saffron pads prance to a balmy sun. Gazelles hop. Kashmir is festive.

Marriages cannot have more appropriate timings in Kashmir. Fall is the official season of weddings. A caboodle of autumns ago, I was made aware of my cousin’s marriage and in a week’s span I flew down – cutting excuses and airline deals for me -- to the timeless vale to attend. Weddings in Kashmir are plain euphemisms for food. Food that is partaken, loved and doted on. No wonder a majority of the invitees do not either greet the bride or the groom or give away any gifts. They simply come, eat and go. As if in an open, plentiful, free-for-all eatery, where you drop by and leave. All expenses paid.

Wazwan – is a multi-cuisine mutton fiesta, conducted by the Wazas [master chefs]. Kashmiris on the whole are simply crazy about meat. Voracious eaters of mutton, even Kashmiri Pandits savor their steak. Pluralistic cultures have never blended any better. Wazwan comes close to smorgasbord, Swedish hors d’ oeuvres, but while wazwan is served by a troupe of wazas, the Swedish counterpart is humbly buffeted. And while buffets make you stand, wazwan is relished on ground. Nearer to mother earth.

My uncle, a guy who produces a million juicy apples each summer, made his terms clear. He wanted the feast to be a success, because any wazwan is directly proportional to the success of a marriage and repute of the household. Most of the money, consequently, gets spent on food. The preparations go on a military scale. Work was assigned to each soul remotely related. Friends are called in. I was lucky to escape work on account of two factors: One, I’m a non-resident Kashmiri. Out of sheer regard for the fact, I was not made to run. Two, I got my very fancy-looking digital cam rolling. A journalist filming the feast saved me the day. Rest of the boys, my cousins and second cousins, toiled.


Around evening two red wagons drove in. From inside, sheep bleated monotonously. Destined since birth for the butcher’s knife. Nothing much. When did a sheep last die of old age? Someone later told me that they were all slaughtered and a few didn’t even resist. Another wagon carried the cooking weaponry: ladles, pestles, knives and the army. Army of the wazas. Super-skilled in their craft, these guys possess a Midas touch. Ordinary foods give off aromas of wizardly cumin with an impatient flick of their hands. The wazas wear dirty clothes. So shaggy that they would be perhaps mistaken for mendicants. It is a stylemark: dirty waza-dress and none complains. May be it is a camouflage.

Since my Kashmiri-American pal was in town, I sent a quick invite. My kindergarten buddy used to play Lath-Keenj-Lut [tip-cat] with me when we were kids but now speaks with an American twang and more importantly spots a green card. Unlike me, Kashmir seldom features in his itinerary these days. I was taken by surprise at his rather impromptu visit. Normally used to exotic seafood on holiday cruises in the Mediterranean, Wazwan meant some change. He promptly texted that he would join.

Back at the Vur -- open kitchen -- all the cooking is done the fusty way on fire [logs, twigs and birch branches]. The assistant wazas pound the meat needed for making meatballs. Another group made quick salami of the softer limbs in the lamb. For lamb-skewers. Yet another party religiously sifted the spices. These units work as close-knit regiments and regimental pride is key. They try to outdo each other only to finish together. The pounding and cutting, battering and smashing, slicing and hammering of mutton makes strange nightly noises. The musicality of mutton.

The kerfuffle of Wazas declares a marriage, out loud. It mingles with the wedding songs sung in the women’s enclosure. Kashmir has a tradition of wanwun [madrigaling]. Beautiful women with still beautiful voices tell the stories of love and happiness in a very sing-song fashion. Chorus. They stand like a human chain, arms flung over each other's shoulder and swing like an ancient rhythm. Their carols curl and pop in air. Sprites sit back and take notice, so do men. The place seems drenched in a noisy revelry.


Glib talkers talked about 9/11 in a naive, unintelligent way. Some said that America – and its Jews -- faked the attack. I was asked for a journalistic opinion, which I gave. I don’t think it satisfied them completely. I felt a trifle amused. Though fine fellows, most of their information was gossipy. Meantime the Degs [copper pots] simmered in soft cuddling whiffs under the autumn moon. A Deg with a Waza stirring it unceasingly is more like Getafix, the Gaulish druid standing near his cauldron, tossing his secret ingredients onto it for his magic potion. A gourmet can tell you that Wazwan is only magic!


The D-day finally came. Guests began to flock in by 2pm. They came in two’s and three’s and sat orderly in a large tent (water proof, double draped) pitched in the wide lawn. Kashmiris have spacious homes and large premises, much like their appetites. The Wazas gave their preparations some last minute touches. Soon food began to arrive, in all its grandeur and majesty, in Taramis [largish copper plates]. Four eat from one plate. The romance with copper that started a long time ago has not ended. Not yet. Not even in a disposable world.

Each Tarami is topped with hot rice enough for eight people. Kebabs [lamb skewers], tabak maz [ribs deep fried], meth-maz [minced meat] and chicken is artfully arranged on the plate. This is the first course and people have less than five minutes to finish it off before another dish appears. My American buddy asked for mineral water and immediately got a bottle. Nowadays all feasts serve mineral water. Next came the golf-ball like Ristas, done in rich rouge gravy. Suddenly one feels like lunching under a spice tree.


A bevy of Wazas does the rounds, carefully serving the contents. It is an intangible art that these guys have perfected over many autumns. They pick out exactly four pieces of a course from a Deg along with some spattering of gravy which is served at four different spots in the Tarami. There are a few things in world, which can be eaten with your bare hands and wazwan tops the list. Spoons and forks can stay in the silverware. For a real thing you need to tuck the sleeves, as they say.

A team-leader is selected randomly, one who actually apportions the serving in a Tarami. The decision is unanimous. This is an important moment, for whoever is chosen to do the favor, refuses at first. A secret ring of joy, however, hovers round his heart to know that he is the most suitable bloke. Tarami-leaders do their job sincerely, never saving a bigger share. Even if they would, no one will complain. Whatever can be eaten is quickly gobbled down. Before another serving comes into sight.

As a gold-hued potion shows up, I knew it was Yekhni. Served towards the close of the elaborate wazwan, it is comprised of -- of course, mutton, stewed in curd and some delectable herbs. It is sumptuous and thick. I licked my fingers. My pal said I must watch out for the calories. ‘Normally I take Ahmed’s sugar-free green tea but in the middle of mutton kingdom with master cooks serving to spoil you, you feel like to indulge. A tad.’ The Kashmiri-American looked on.

There are 8 to 10 courses generally. Uncle made it eleven, auspiciously extravagant. There is some inscrutable fixation with 11. Not a figure is browned off. The American bit into finely cut turnip pieces, occasionally squeezing out a young lemon on the vegetable dressing. I couldn’t help work a tiny smile seeing him move his jaws with a steady chomp amongst all the munching around. My friend thought people will have collywobbles with all the food they consume. I rubbished him: Kashmiris imbibe the assortment of spices and it glows in their cheeks. In heads too, at times!


Guys-on-duty: cousins and second cousins kept bringing in extra Sarposhs -- large lids of copper – containing more rice. Each tarami took two generous helpings of ‘new rice’.


Since all good things must come to an end, the waza brings his specialty towards the climax. Gushtaba: a yardstick to measure the chef’s culinary skills. It is a huge ball of meat, marinated with blobs of golden fat. It has a golden soup too, which is tingling. Gushtaba serves as a full stop and looks like an inflated cricket ball or a deflated football. The American friend of mine however called it ‘MOAB’…Mother of All Bombs. Smirking, he took a chunk of it to finish off his lunch. We (me and two others, on our tarami) finished the rest of it, licking the last dreamy dab of gravy.

A mandatory duva [short prayer] said and people were off. [I couldn’t help notice many people actually say ‘ti aamen’ (and Amen) – a curious blend of Kashmiri and Arabic]


A close kin that I am, I was called inside, along with the almost-filled American for an odd ‘Kehwa’ cup. Kehwa is neither tea not lemonade. It is Joe’s nectar. It is a brew sprinkled with lots of apricots and cashews, raisins and almonds. Subtly rouge, thanks to the precious strands of saffron that float in its ripples, it tastes heaven. One feels levitated, somewhere between cloud nine and paradise. The American sipped in a few of the priceless pints, made double.

Early next morning, in my home, I found my washroom occupied. My friend had stayed over for the night. When he didn’t come out for a long time, I tapped. ‘I've got the trots’, he hollered. Clearly Wazwan was too much for his American dietary habits. For once, only once, the Mother-of-all-Bombs had done some harm to an American.