Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Kashmir People 7

Ghulam Nabi is a light-eyed elderly gentleman who works as a head waiter at Ahdoos in Srinagar. The two people who I have asked about a place to sample Kashmiri cuisine have both pointed to Ahdoos, a seventy-year old restaurant on Residency Road. Our driver repeatedly points out that the name of the road used to be Maulana Azad Road but everyone refers to it as Residency Road since a big hotel called The Residency came up. The restaurant is spacious and the waiters helpful. When I ask Ghulam to decide the menu for us, he does an intricate calculation in his head and suggests that we order two portions of three dishes, two mutton and one chicken. We ask him about Kashmir's famous Wazwan cuisine. "Wazwan is the marriage cuisine," he points out, "A total of twenty-two dishes are prepared, twenty-one mutton and one chicken." Someone in our group mentions that we had some Wazwan food elsewhere. Ghulam's eyes darken. He painstakingly explains the difference between the real Wazwan recipes and the imposters. "Restaurants hire Nepali cooks to save money," he says, "The Lehebi (I hope that's the right spelling) Kebab here is made by pounding the meat and not grinding it in a machine or by mincing it with knives. Merzwan is a spicy preparation with chillies." The food is excellent. Every other meal we had had so far pales in comparison. And we have eaten well. Because of various people scaring the hell out of us, we had chosen to add dinner to our hotel packages everywhere. Luckily we never had to regret it. Unlike most packages where the hotel sets out an 'Eat it or leave it' buffet, the waiter in charge of our table would ask us at breakfast about our choice of food for dinner. And prepare it separately for us. Ditto for the rest of the groups. (Of course there were Gujarati groups who travel with their own cooks and kitchens and ate the same food they ate back home, but to each is own.) Bashir, the manager in charge at our hotel in Srinagar, when confronted with cooking a local turnip-like vegetable called nalcol (?) for a vegetarian in our group, frowned with worry and said, "But it takes three hours to cook!" He cooked it nevertheless and even the carnivores took a second helping. Ghulam Nabi seems to be in physical pain when he talks about the bastardisation of cuisine and the short-cuts in preparation. But then, cuisine is culture, when one vanishes, so does the other.

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