A Slice Of ‘Jannat’ On Your Plate

It’s a shame that the simple, yet exotic (or maybe therefore!) Kashmiri food is not as popular as other cuisines in Mumbai. After all, for a state that’s known as heaven on earth, the food from the region does have an ambrosial streak in it.

We were therefore more than happy to check out the Kashmiri Food Festival running from 21st to 30th August, 2013, at Maya – the Indian specialty restaurant of Trident BKC. In fact, the hotel officials were so encouraged by the response to this festival, they wanted to extend it for a week. But the four Wazas, or specialist cooks from Kashmir who were there specifically for this festival, could not stay back due to some legal issues.

This is the second Kashmiri food festival in as many months that we’ve been to and we wondered why 5-star hotels were suddenly keen to introduce their guests to this cuisine. But whatever be their reasons, we were just glad to explore this cuisine, which hasn’t been well promoted in Mumbai, seeing the pitiful number of restaurants that specialize in Kashmiri cuisine.

The food festival at Maya was focused on the Muslim Wazwan technique, not the Hindu Pandit one – the two distinct styles of cooking Kashmiri food. Chef Rehman from Kitchenett-e-Awadh had been commissioned to bring a slice of Kashmir to the festival and we must say that he managed to pull it off with aplomb.

When you enter Maya, which means illusion in Sanskrit, you are greeted by the sound of trickling water from a waterfall cleverly camouflaged behind strings of metal beads. There is an easy to miss conversation sculpture piece across the small hallway. One word of caution: Trident wants people to pay attention to where they were going, because there are steps where you would least expect them. Tread with caution!

For the Kashmiri Food Festival, Maya offered a pre-plated veg or non-veg thali during lunch, because that’s when the restaurant sees many professionals stop over for a quick lunch. The dinner had an a la carte option, so we settled for that. In between our conversations with Chef Rehman, we sipped on warm kahwa, a cardamom and saffron infused green tea, poured out by our attentive server. Unsure what to order, we decided to let Chef Rehman take the lead, and we are so glad we took that call.

While waiting for our food, we decided to sample dark red jam, which we were later told was beetroot chutney, and a tangy chutney made of walnuts and radish. Who would have thought that these unlovely vegetables could get such an alluring makeover, compelling you to keep eating?

Our meal officially began with the Tabak Maaz (INR1050), the star attraction of any Wazwan thali. The lamb ribs are first slow cooked in water infused with spices, saffron and milk and later cooked again on low heat, which explains why the meat almost falls off the bone. Our advice, dig in using your fingers because the fork and knife might not do proper justice to this dish, which is simplicity personified.

The Kukur Dudhiya (INR 1000) is so succulent that just a poke with the knife slices the boneless chicken piece marinated with Kashmiri chillies and yoghurt before it is grilled. Don’t let the appearance of the Maaz Sheekh Kabab (INR 1050) lull you into believING it will have grainy meat with lots of chillies and coriander. The meat is so well pounded and grounded that it just slides down your throat effortlessly – like a good galouti kebab ought to. Chef Rizwan then revealed that one of his waza is a specialist in grinding different types of meat and IS a whiz at that. Well, we will vouch for his skills, if this kebab be taken as an example. There was also the Rajmah Kebab (INR 800) but it paled in comparison to its meaty peers.

Fortified with the nibbles, we moved on to the main course. And how could we not have Rishta, Gushtaba or Roganjosh – the most popular dishes of the Kashmiri meal?! The Rishta (INRs1275) has huge meatballs in thin tomato based gravy. The slowly cooked meatballs were too dense when eaten by themselves. We preferred enjoying smaller pieces of it with the gravy instead. The Gushtaba (INR 1275), a laboriously cooked dish that is almost always a part of any special occasion in Kashmir, also has meatballs in a thin gravy comprising curd and spices.

When we saw the fiery colored Roganjosh (INR 1275), our stomaches did a back flip, worried about their delicate linings. The aromatic fragrance of the Roganjosh however made us throw caution to the winds and dig into it with the accompanying sweet flavored Sheermal (INR 250). Luckily in this case, looks were deceptive since ‘Roganjosh’ calls for a liberal use of deseeded Kashmiri chillies which impart dark red color but don’t bring the proportional fieriness. Also, the unique aspect of his dish, as Chef Rizwan pointed out, is that he cooked it with just tomatoes, curd and lots of spices, without onions. The Haakh Kashmiri (INR 875) is another simple dish of chopped spinach cooked with tomatoes.

Now, one did wonder about the thin consistency of the gravies, since more often than not one is subjected to the thicker and creamier variety. Chef Rizwan stated that Kashmiris usually have thinner gravies that can be soaked faster by the thick flatbreads or poured over mounds of rice. Talking about breads, we loved the Baqurkhani (INR 250), which tasted like a crusty biscuit with many interspersed layers.

We ended our meal with small portions of Kong Firni (INR 475). Disappointingly it did not come in earthen ware, which imparts a slightly earthy taste to this rice and milk dessert. The simply prepared Kubani ka Halwa (INR 475), or fresh apricot halwa, was a better choice.

What we liked about Kashmiri cuisine is the simplicity of the dishes where each spice, each condiment and each ingredient can be tasted – unlike some Indian cuisines which are a cauldron of tastes that can’t be discerned. If you get a chance to try Kashmiri food – be it Wazwan or Pandit style – we suggest that you drop everything you are doing and just go for it! Your taste buds will thank you.