The flavour of a place literally lies in the story of its cuisine. Carrying the imprint of climate, religion, culture and history, a cuisine is a distinct style of cooking ingredients that are primarily locally available. The two fundamental influences on Kashmiri cuisine are the influence of Kashmiri Pandits and Kashmiri Muslims with several overlapping similarities. Interestingly, both are traditionally meat eaters. The difference is in the Kashmiri Pandits’ preference for lamb while the Kashmiri Muslims’ favour goat.
The Nilamat Puran written as far back as the 6th-7th century AD on the cultural history of Kashmir mentions the Kashmiri Pandits’ love for mutton. Rituals honouring the nags and yakshas – the mythological original inhabitants of the valley – comprise offerings of vegetarian as well as non-vegetarian delicacies as Prasad. The offerings to the Gram devta as well as Grih devta too are not exempt from non-vegetarian food.
The Kashmir Muslims’ influence can be traced back to Persia, Central Asia and Afghanistan that took on a distinct form in the soil of Kashmir. This trend began around the 1500s with the Central Asian invasion of Kashmir. The essence of Kashmiri Muslim influence is to be found in the Wazwan – a meal traditionally consisting of 36 courses. The origin of wazas – cooks can be traced to the migrants who came to Kashmir with Timur. The chief cook is called the vasta waza and family recipes are jealously guarded.
As per their religious beliefs while the cuisine of Kashmiri Pandits does not have beef, Kashmiri Muslims refrain from pork. Apart from this Kashmiri Pandits avoid the use of garlic and onion. While Muslims use garlic, the preference is for a kind of wild onion called Prantha and curd are avoided by the Muslims. Perhaps the common ancient recipe for both communities is the kahwa – a flavoured green tea beverage tracing back to the 1st and 2nd centuries AD of the Kushan empire. Highly aromatic with saffron, cinnamon and cardamom, kahwa is traditionally prepared in a samovar. Even as it predates Muslim influence, it is an integral part of the wazwan.
With such a tapestry of historical influences, Kashmiri cuisine is not just an aesthetic part of Kashmir, it encapsulates its heritage.