Srinagar, May 18 (IANS) To beat the deadline before the fasting month of Ramadan begins, marriage season has hit the peak in Kashmir as the traditional local cuisine, the 'wazwan', beckons guests to 'baraats' and receptions.
"I had to wait for four hours for my wife to finish her food at a marriage party yesterday. It was 6.30 p.m. and the females had still not eaten their lunch," said a fellow journalist who attended a marriage party the other day.
Unable to cope with the large number of guests, 'wazwan' is served separately to men and women at marriages in Kashmir and women are served food after men have finished eating.
As the middle-class affluence has grown here like in the rest of country, the list of guests has also become larger than manageable.
For instance, 1,600 guests were invited to a reception in summer capital Srinagar recently - and all had to be served lunch!
Just imagine - the mouth-watering 20 course wazwan being served to 1,600 guests, assembled in groups of four around a nickel-plated 'trami' on which chicken and mutton delicacies like tabak maaz, kababs, methi maaz, shami kababs, full chicken, and a dani phul almost completely hide the large heap of snow-white rice laden on the Kashmiri thali.
Tabak maaz is the crisp, lamb rib deep fried in pasteurized butter.
"It is not an ordinary job to bring the tabak maaz to its right crispness and flavour. A keen observer is able to tell the expertise of the waza (traditional local chef who specializes in the art of cooking wazwan) by just touching the tabak maaz", Ghulam Nabi, 56, a well-known head chef who lives in the Aali Kadal area of Srinagar's old city, told IANS.
Just after the 'saar posh' (the trami's top cover) is removed, the pageant of food and flavour begins at the wazwan party.
The waza, dressed in white 'pheran' (traditional local over-garment), white pajamas, white socks and a white skull cap moves from one trami to the other, carrying each course and serving it to the foursome eating at each thali.
Ristas are served by the waza after the guests are nearly over with the dishes already spread over the trami. Rista is a finely-minced ball of lamb served with a thick gravy that is richly-spiced.
Its gravy is moderately hot as local chillies are added to the assortment of spices that go into making of this delicacy.
"Think of any well-known spice and we have used it in the wazwan to tickle your taste buds.
"We use saffron, green and brown cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, fennel powder, turmeric powder and salt in the right proportion to evolve the kind of flavour that makes the wazwan a treat to remember and relish," Ghulam Nabi said.
Rista is followed by rogan josh (lamb, again cooked in a richly-spiced, moderately hot gravy).
The train of servings by the waza continues through mirch korma, aab gosht and the like and finally the goshtaba.
Goshtaba is a large ball of lamb cooked in butter and curds without any chillies. For Kashmiris, the serving of the goshtaba also signals the end of the extended feast, whose serving takes anything between one-and-a-half to two hours.
Chutnis of six kinds, salad, mineral water, cold drinks, ice cream and the like are additions that have been made during the last 30 years to the wazwan feast.
Pulao is also served to the guests in special packets.
Guests are given carrybags packets if they intended to carry any of the dishes home.
"In the past, the total quantity of mutton that went into the preparation of wazwan for one trami would not exceed two kilograms. Nowadays, this quantity has increased to nearly five kilograms. Additional dishes served include mushrooms, cooked apricots, cheese, spinach, Quinn apple and, of course, the king of local vegetables, the haak. The leafy haak is cooked in mutton soup which enriches its taste and flavour," Ghulam Nabi said.
He said the lambs selected for making the wazwan have to be of the right age and breed.
"It is not just any lamb mutton that we accept for making the wazwan. We carefully select the lambs from the butcher's stock to ensure that they are of high quality. If this is not done, all the expertise and the labour of the chef will go waste", Ghulam Nabi pointed out.
The head chef supervises a team of over 20 junior chefs who toil for over 10 hours to cook the wazwan for a marriage party.
Even the firewood over which the feast is cooked has to be of a special kind.
"You can't have pine or any other firewood. It has to be the wood of the peach or any other fruit tree. Fruit trees that have stopped bearing fruit are cut and used as fuel for making the feast," Ghulam Nabi explained.
While many locals believe the ritual is often tiring and burdensome, the moment the lid is taken off the trami, all the cynicism and reformist grandstanding melt as guests put their heads down to savour the wazwan.
That perhaps is the magic of this centuries-old cuisine which keeps the medieval feast from becoming outdated.
(Sheikh qayoom can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)