The word ‘Wazwan’ may not touch a chord with you, but for a true-blue , Wazwan is as much an emotion, a sensation as it is a great big feast. Wazwan, a combination of two words Waz meaning ‘a cook’ or ‘cooking’ and Wan which is a shop or store, is a multi-course meal served during weddings and major festivals. But for the kind of reverence it commands in the valley, it is synonymous with a grand celebration.
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Nobody is certain and almost everyone only cares about the eating aspect of it, but there are conflicting stories as to how Wazwan came to be as we know it. Some believe it came to Kashmir from Iran along with the medieval rulers. Others believe this elaborate tradition – of predominantly non-vegetarian meal of 30 odd dishes, at least half of them lamb or chicken preparations – originated here itself. Wherever may be the origin, one thing is for certain: for a couple of centuries at least, Wazwan has been the mainstay of weddings and Eids and celebrations, big and small.
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Wazwan is as much about the chef, if not more, as it is about the mutton and chicken that go into the dishes. Cooking up a full-course is a pride for the cooks, called Wazas; the most well-known of these traditional wazas have weddings scheduled or rescheduled around their availability. It is also considered an art by gastronomes, who patron it as one would a piece of art. The wazas take up a good part of the night to cook the whole spread, and later, adorning white phirans (traditional Kashmiri robes) and skullcaps, present each course to the guests themselves.
The best of the feast is the royal Wazwan, which comprises exactly 36 dishes, a dozen to 20 of which are non-vegetarian main course ones. After the guests have cleansed their hands in basins called Tash Naer, the main course is commenced by the Waza bringing in ornate copper vessels called Traem or Trami, each of which contains enough quantity and variety of food to quench a hungry foodie for weeks. A trami, meant for 4 guests each, usually contains carefully heaped rice or pulao topped with seekh kebab, Tabakh maaz (a twice-cooked mutton cooked in ghee-rich gravy), zafran or safed kokur (chicken in white or saffron sauce), methi korma (chicken or mutton in a dry spice containing fenugreek), and rogan josh or other main course dishes. The main course runs for an hour or so, and the dishes are accompanied with 6 to 8 types of lip-smacking chutneys, some of them uncharacteristically rich with nuts and dry fruits. The end of this main course is signalled when the Waza brings in Gushtaba, invariably the last dish of the main course, which is a preparation of large meatballs cooked overnight with curd and other spices.
The main course is followed by some absolutely unmissable desserts like phirni, halwa, and sweet beverages. Apart from the ones mentioned above, some of the best-known dishes served in a Wazwan spread are aab gosht (a spicy lamb preparation), rista (mutton meatballs cooked in a red gravy), methi maaz (as the name suggests, a dish of lamb with the dominant aroma of fenugreek) and dani phol.
As the times have changed, so have the attitudes and habits of the consumers and the cooks. The Wazas, who generally hailed from traditional Waz families, have dwindled in numbers since most of the youngsters have opted for fancier professions. Thus, the demand for authentic ‘Wazas’ has shot up. With the best-known Wazas having too much on their plate (or their cooking stove, to be precise), they have begun cooking from their homes and supplying to weddings prepared cuisine; apart from appointing apprentices who do most of the ground-work for them.
The way the cuisine is also seeing modern additions, introduction of cold drinks and buffet, as opposed to the traditional way of sitting on the floor. While the former is an unavoidable byproduct of tastes getting globalised, the latter is meant to save food and let the guests choose stuff of their liking.
While calling it a dying art would be getting ahead of ourselves, it is surely not an authentic heritage experience anymore. Now that you’ve read through this and are a mini-pedant on this topic, it is time you went out and gave it a shot; the enterprising Wazas have even begun selling canned preparations for distant hopefuls like you (and me).
Image Source- Paradise Kashmir