While we were eating at the Ahdoo’s Restaurant in Srinagar, we happened to overhear a conversation at a neighbouring table. A family of tourists—almost certainly from somewhere in North India—were trying to make guesses about what a wazwaan was. Someone suggested it was a Kashmiri thali (a fixed meal, everything served together in one large platter, per individual). Someone else said no, it was the name given to Kashmiri cuisine per se.
Not really. A wazwaan is the name given to a Kashmiri feast—and not just any feast, but the feast, the trotting out of all of Kashmir’s best foods. The occasions for a wazwaan can be varied: a wedding, an engagement, any other major celebration.
When my family lived in Srinagar for 3 years (I was 12 years old when we left), we were once invited to our landlord’s home for a wazwaan: his wife’s younger sister was getting engaged. The hosts lived upstairs; we lived on the ground floor below them. For two days, beginning at dawn, preparations were underway in our huge backyard—it was the only place large enough to accommodate the waza (the head chef), his platoon of commis, and their many cauldrons. Five large sheep were decapitated (ceremonially, using the ‘halaal’ method to render them pure for consumption by the Muslim family). About 20 chickens were slaughtered. The sheep were skinned and hung on the bare peach trees of our yard. Spices were ground and fried; the meat was pounded by hand in mortar and pestle, kilos of rice were cleaned and picked, and all day long on the second day—the day of the feast—we were surrounded by the aromas of Muslim Kashmiri food.
That evening, we went upstairs and were quickly segregated. Papa was ushered into the large hall where the rest of the men were seated. My mum, my sister and I were taken into the ladies’ hall and seated. And seated, not at tables, but at dastarkhaans, long white runner-like sheets laid out on a floor completely covered with carpets.Dastarkhaans are similar to dining tables in that your plate sits on it; you are seated opposite to, and beside, fellow diners; and condiments—in the case of a wazwaan, lots of plain yoghurt, a chutney made of walnuts, and a relish of tomatoes and raw onions—are placed on it. And all your food is served right there.
The traditional Kashmiri way of eating at a wazwaan is from a taraami: a very large platter, on a raised base (like a cake plate) is placed in such a way as to serve as a common dinner plate for four people. The taraami comes heaped with cooked rice, and the wait staff (the waza’s assistants) serve four portions of each dish, onto the heap of rice—with each portion set a little aside from the others. You eat with your fingers, making sure you don’t touch the portions of your neighbours. Since mum, my sister and I weren’t Kashmiris and might have felt odd sharing a taraami with a stranger, we were given actual dinner plates, each heaped with rice. I don’t remember exactly how that feast proceeded. I do know that my father later discovered that the traditional wazwaan consists of about 36 dishes—and that we all agreed that yes, there could well have been 36 courses served up on our platefuls of rice.
I do remember, though, that there was meat. Lots and lots and lots of it. The waza’s assistants would whisk past behind us, leaning over to deftly ladle gravy and meat over our shoulders, onto the plate or taraami. I do know we ate rista (very fine meatballs in a spicy gravy), roganjosh (meat in a red curry); aab gosht (meat cooked in milk, with a few mild, fragrant spices); tabakmaaz (ribs, simmered in a mutton stock and then deep-fried to a crackly crisp); and many, many more dishes. I remember a fashionable and obviously wealthy Kashmiri lady sitting next to us, probably watching us struggle to consume all we’d been served—and I remember her smile as she pushed forward a large bowl of yoghurt, saying: "Have some of this. It helps digest the meat. And don’t eat the rice. It’s only meant to wipe your hands on between different types of meat". I remember thinking back later on that meal and trying to recall any vegetarian dishes. Even the spinach, I remembered, had tiny meatballs in it. (I eventually did remember two vegetarian dishes in all that flood of meat: kidney beans cooked in a tomato and onion gravy; and chaaman, known throughout India as paneer). That was it. If you weren’t a meat-eater, a wazwaan would leave you fairly hungry. Papa—a couple of days later—was chatting with our landlord and happened to comment on the large amount of meat. The gentleman then shared a secret: that the consumption of meat is calculated at the rate of 1.5 (yes, one and a half!) kilos of meat per diner.
That wazwaan, like all traditional wazwaans, ended with the pièce de resistance: the gushtaba. This is a large meatball, about the size of a grapefruit, made by pounding—for hours—mutton, fat, and mild spices, especially cardamom. Once the meat paste is as fine as silk, it’s moulded into large meatballs and cooked in a yoghurt gravy. A good gushtaba is the sign of a great waza—and so, while the waza’s assistants serve the rest of the meal, the waza himself serves the gushtaba.
That, therefore, is what a wazwaan is about. As a dessert, you may be served firni, a rice pudding made from ground rice cooked in lightly sweetened thickened milk. And, as a grand finale, you’ll certainly get kehwa, the local Kashmiri green tea that’s brewed with cardamom and cassia bark (and, for an occasion grand enough to merit a wazwaan, probably with a generous garnish of almond slivers and a few threads of Kashmir saffron in each cup.)
You’re unlikely to find yourself being treated to a regular wazwaan unless you happen to be a very special guest at a household that’s hosting one. But you can get a taste of some of the stars of a traditional wazwaan, like a rista, gushtaba, tabakmaaz or roganjosh in several restaurants in Srinagar (I recommend Ahdoo’s). Don’t miss the opportunity.