A dozen years ago to the date, N and I were in the midst of the journey of a lifetime. For two months we traveled by rail throughout much of India. Because we share the tendency to view life from our stomachs'-eye view, the focus of our honeymoon trip quickly switched from visiting palaces and temples to tasting pullaos (pilafs) and thalis (set meals).
As we traveled through a country as vast in area as Europe, I learned that it is as absurd to talk about "Indian cuisine" as one entity as it would be to attempt to describe a single "European cuisine." There are more than a dozen major languages and hundreds of dialects spoken by the billion people who call India home (and far more languages when you add the other countries of the subcontinent, including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka). Each region has its own distinctive cuisine.
Since we were strict vegetarians at the time, we probably would not have enjoyed sampling the cuisine of Kashmir, a region which we were forbidden from visiting due to political unrest and violence.
Through my reading this past week, I've learned that all Kashmiris adore eating meat, even the area's Hindu Brahmins, the high priestly class. The Brahmin "pandits" (from which we get the English word "pundit") are the only Brahmins in India who are carnivores. They are the minority group amongst the predominantly Muslim population of Kashmir, but both share many of the same culinary preferences.
Some spices, which are common to the kitchens of both Muslims and Hindu pandits, distinguish Kashmiri cooking from that of other regions of India. Fennel and ginger, especially powdered dried ginger, find there way into nearly every dish. When cooking meat dishes, both Hindus and Muslims also like to add the smoked black cardamom pods, which in the local tongue are called "big cardamom," because they are far larger than the more common green cardamom (see picture, right). They contribute a haunting smokiness to meat dishes.
Kashmiris cook with a type of dried red chili pepper that is unique to the region. The pepper is mild and lends its bright vermilion color to many of their most famous regional specialties, like rogan josh (lamb braised with yogurt and spices which we will cook together in a few days).
Two locally grown flowers are added to many Kashmiri delicacies. Saffron, which comes from mauve crocuses that have been grown in the region for more than 2,500 years, is used only on the most special occasions. The other flower, called maval in Kashmiri and "cock's comb" in English, is mainly used by Muslim cooks to color dishes a pinkish maroon.
One group of ingredients in particular seems to distinguish Hindu from Muslim cooking in the region. Local Hindu pandits abstain from consuming any members of the allium family, such as garlic, onions, and the unique local cross between a shallot and a spring onion called praan. They believe these pungent vegetables raise "base passions." Perhaps to substitute for the missing flavor, Hindu cooks add asafoetida, a rather stinky tree resin that James Beard once compared favorably to truffles. Muslim cooks rarely if ever use asafoetida.
The main cooking fat in the region is mustard oil, which is pressed from the seeds of the plants whose yellow flowers carpet the hills in the spring. The golden oil is similar in flavor to extra virgin olive oil. Kashmiri cooks characteristically fry their vegetables in mustard oil before they add any other seasoning. Mustard oil is sold unrefined and unpasteurized. When it is called for in a recipe, it is important to heat it to the smoking point before using it (otherwise you may get ill...trust me, I know from experience). Clarified butter, ghee, is called for in some local specialties.
Another common ingredient that distinguishes Kashmiri from other Indian cuisines is the abundant use of yogurt. Local cooks use it to thicken the sauces of nearly every dish. Kashmiri chutneys usually consist of yogurt combined with mint, pumpkin and even walnuts. To replicate the taste of Kashmiri (or really any north Indian food), use whole milk yogurt, preferably one that has been drained of excess liquid in a cheesecloth for a couple of hours. Thick Greek or Russian style yogurt, such as Total Greek Yogurt made by FAGE, works beautifully.
The superb local long-grained Basmati rice is served with every Kashmiri meal. Borrowing from the Persian method of cooking (via the Mughals), Basmati rice is typically made into a pilaf (pullao in Hindi) infused with cardamom, cinnamon, black cumin and sometimes saffron. The exquisite wheat flatbreads of the region, including kulcha, are cooked by professional bakers in clay ovens and closely resemble the breads of Afghanistan and Central Asia. These breads typically accompany morning and afternoon tea.
The region of Kashmir is one of the few temperate zones in a country dominated by tropical and desert climates, so many of the fruits and vegetables, though familiar in the West, are unique in India. Rather than mangoes, guavas and papayas, Kashmiri orchards produce fruits and nuts that would be at home in any farmers market in the Bay Area: cherries, apricots, peaches, nectarines, pears, apples, quince, almonds and walnuts. Berries (including strawberries, mulberries and wild blackberries), rhubarb and melons are other popular fruits. Some of these fruits even find there way into local savory meat and vegetable dishes.
No Kashmiri meal is complete without a dish of haak, a type of leafy green vegetable grown only in the region, which Madhur Jaffrey discovered turns out to be none other than collard greens. Other leafy greens include mustard greens, kohlrabi greens, and amaranth (a purple tinged spinach). Eggplants, daikon radishes, turnips, kohlrabi and lotus roots (whose pink flowers grace all local lakes, roots pictured right) are equally popular vegetables. In the forests, foragers gather wild morel mushrooms and asparagus, which are both highly prized by cooks.
The meat most favored by Kashmiris is without a doubt mutton and lamb from the sheep and goats that roam the hills. According to one source, it's considered an embarrassment not to offer at least one dish of mutton at every meal.
In the area's many lakes and rivers, Kashmiri men catch fish, including freshwater trout and a type of carp, and hunt migrating ducks and geese. It's interesting to note that Hindu pandits won't touch chickens or their eggs, which feed on table scraps, but will happily devour ducks and their eggs. I was also happy to discover that Kashmir's is one of the few regional cuisines of India that includes offal, especially liver and kidneys (though never of course from pigs, which are unclean to Muslims, or cattle, which are sacred to Hindus).
Learning about Kashmiri cuisine is a way to get to know the people who have survived the devastating earthquakes that struck their region in October. Consider buying one or more $5 raffle tickets for a chance to win one of the generous prizes donated by dozens of food bloggers, including the Kashmiri Cooking Kit (more than $60 worth of spices, food and recipes to cook a Kashmiri - or Indian - feast and to brew up some masala chai) that I am donating. All the funds raised will go to UNICEF, specially earmarked to assist the victims of the earthquakes.
Click the button below to be taken to the donation page (make sure to specify which prize you want to win). Thank you.