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By now, all of you out there would have settled into the New Year. The post-party fog would have lifted, and right about now you would be figuring out which way your New Year Resolutions and Bucket List entries are headed! I am currently immersed in some serious recalibrations 😉 But I am also armed with a brand new mantra this year – it’s simple, effective, one-size-fits-all, and loaded with meaning… The mantra is “You’ll get there!”

Speaking of Bucket Lists, almost every one of us has at least one ‘must-explore’ place before we pop it, right? It could be a city, a town, a monument, a park, a street, a hill, a house… or even a ride, a journey (like one atop a hay-stacked bullock-cart??) Amidst all the talks and plans of one’s favourite place to visit and dream destination and such that are rife right now, one particular destination keeps popping up in every conversation, every forum… Kashmir!

A pretty Kashmiri girl sifting through the fiery red Kashmiri Chillies

Surprised? Well, I am too! It may be one of the oldest tourist destinations in the world, but it is after all a troubled valley, where things are at best uncertain… But I guess the eternal magic of the place far outweighs its acquired infamy. People are intrigued by the real stories and fantastic imageries that lucky visitors from a few years ago share about its pristine natural beauty, its unique boathouse stays on the lake, its exquisite wood and wool craftsmanship, and its delicious and aromatic food!

The heavenly Gushtaba – Pounded lamb meatballs in a yoghurt and fennel gravy

I am a big fan of Gushtaba. My love for this dish started with a neighbor, lovingly called ‘Kashmiri Aunty’, who just happened to be a fabulous cook. When she moved away, it became a personal ritual to stop over at the Kashmir Food stall at Dilli Haat on every trip to Delhi, to quickly gobble down a plate… or three! Quite simply, the Gushtaba is Lamb Meatballs in a White Sauce. But there is nothing simple about this dish, right from the way the meat is thwacked vigorously into softness, to the oh-so-delicate balance of cream, yoghurt, cardamom and fennel, to the way it is ceremoniously presented as the final dish, in a mind-boggling line-up of 36 dishes that make up the lavish Wazwan feast!

Yoghurt, Walnut and Pumpkin dips that complement rice or tandoori Rotis

The spiced Qawah tea with little slivers of almonds is traditionally served from a copper Samovar

A few days ago, J W Marriott in Mumbai kick-started a Kashmir Wazwan Food Festival, and of course, I had to be there, if only for the memory of Kashmiri Aunty 😉 It was the food, yes, but it was also curiosity – how does a 5-star kitchen handle a cuisine that is steeped in unique traditions, is largely based on slow-cooking, is unapologetically non-vegetarian, is completely irreverent in it’s use of ghee, and is eye-popping with the fire and colour of the Kashmiri red chillies?

Rose Milk Sherbet, with fragrant rose petals set the mood for a lavish feast

Lotus Stem Yakhni, a light stewy curry, is a popular delicacy

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The fiery Rista – Meatballs in a saffron and red chillies sauce

The answer lay in a pretty banquet with brocade floor seating, copper Samovars for the beautifully spiced Qawah tea, and a Rose Milk Sherbet that set the mood. The shy Wazwani Chefs Ahmad and Abbas Bhat from Srinagar, down in Mumbai to give us a slice of authentic Kashmir, passionately described a typical feast and the culture of sharing food from one large copper plate, the Traem. The feast followed soon after, accompanied by Executive Chef Himanshu’s delightful food storytelling… light Shammi Kebabs, stewed Lotus Stem Yakhni, Pan-Seared Himalayan Trout, fiery chicken meatballs gravy Rista, spicy and rich Rogan Josh, and finally, the Gushtaba. Warnings of heavy spice and ghee were unfounded, because the dishes, although commendable in flavor, were tempered considerably for a cosmopolitan, and largely global, clientele.

The Himalayan Trout, pan seared to perfection!

 

But I was happy with the light and crisp Trout, a simple yet delicious rendition of a fish found far away in glacial waters. And the Gushtaba was simply divine… soft, spongy balls of meat floating invitingly in a delicate, aromatic white sauce!

So till the time I visit the ‘paradise on earth’ and taste Kashmiri food in Kashmir, I think I could pretty much survive on this alone 😉 And as someone wise once said, I am inclined to agree that ‘You’ll get there’ too!’ 🙂

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