The food of Kashmir, known for its rich taste and aroma, can be a plain meal of a family, or even a 36-course wedding banquet called Wazawan. The spices like cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, saffron, etc., used in the Kashmiri food, make it unique and popular all over the world.
The people of Kashmir are very fond of eating. Mutton, chicken or fish are of prime importance in a Kashmiri meal and everyday cooking often combines vegetable and meat in the same dish. Mutton and turnips, chicken and spinach, fish and lotus root are also very popular combinations. Lamb dishes abound yakhni (in curds), aab gosht (in milk), roghan josh (literally red meat, with Hindu spicing and coloured red with dried cockscomb), marzwagan (as a mince), several meat balls like goli and rista and goshtaba, a meat loaf of minced mutton, large and silky in texture.
There is even a special mishani dinner (served in a wedding), in which exactly seven dishes, all made from lamb, are served.
Pure vegetarian dishes include dum-aloo - roasted potatoes in curd-based gravy, and chaman- fried paneer (cottage cheese), in a thick sauce. Non-vegetarian dishes are considered in Kashmir to be a sign of lavish hospitality and at a Wazwan or banquet, not more than one or two vegetarian dishes are served. Sweets do not play an important role in Kashmiri cuisine. Instead Kahva or green tea is used to wash down a meal.
Wazawan is usually served at weddings and parties. The most commonly served items are rista (meat balls) made of finely pounded mutton and cooked in a gravy; seekh kababs, tabak maz, or flat pieces of meat cut from the ribs and fried till they acquire a crisp crackling texture, roganjosh, which owes its rich red colour to the generous use of Kashmiri chillies. Yakhni, a cream coloured preparation of delicate flavour, is made with curd as a base. Gushtaba, which is the last item to be served in a traditional wazawan, are meatballs moulded from pounded mutton like large-sized Rista but cooked in thick gravy of fresh curd base. Dam-Aaloo and chaman are the commonly served vegetarian dishes - to serve more than this would indicate an unseemly tendency on the part of the host to economize!
Even Kashmiri Brahmins eat flesh, but the distinct use of spices make the foods of Hindus and Muslims in Kashmir different.
The Hindus use asafetida (hing), fenugreek (methi), ginger and aniseed (saunf), while the Muslims make use of onions (a variety called praan) and garlic, and both use Kashmir chilies which confer an intense red colour and a tart rather than spicy flavor. Appropriate spices are ground and shaped into discs with a hole in the middle, alasalas or wadis, from which pieces are broken off for use either in cooking or as a table spice.
Rice is the staple food of Kashmir, the most preferred being the dense, slightly sticky grained Kashmir variety, cherished the most in the valley. Rice is cooked in many ways like the tursh, shulla and zarda (sweet) pulaos. Shree pulao and mutton pulao are also made from rice. The wheat breads include kulcha, sheermal, the chewy girda, the sesame encrusted tsachvaru and the soft bakirkhani, all eaten for breakfast with tea.
The Dogras (Rajputs) of Kashmir eat wheat, bajra and maize as staple foods. The other popular dishes of Kashmir are the rajmah; a curd preparation called auria, and the relish ambal. Expert cooks are called siyan, and community meals are called dhaam and are served on large lotus leaves, or stitched leaves (pattals) and cups (doona). A Dogra verse has it that a man can never fail in his missions if he takes a radish on Tuesdays, sweets on Wednesdays, curd on Thursdays, rai on Fridays, uses oil on Saturdays, chews betel on Sundays, and looks into a mirror on Mondays.
Chutneys in Kashmir are made from fresh walnuts, sour cherries, yellow pumpkins and white radishes. For desserts, fruits like apples, cherries, peaches, pears and plums are eaten.
Tea is made in samovars called kangri and is brewed either green, or with cardamoms and almonds to yield the richer kahwah, both of which are sipped all day long.