Kashmir’s cuisine is so central to its culture that no discussion on Kashmir can be thought of without its mention.
It is one of the most invigorating and diverse cuisines of the world. It is rich and diverse in its taste, texture and the numberless delicacies that are a part of it. Even a look at it before you taste it is so satiating. It’s a visual treat.
Whether it is an everyday meal prepared with love for the family or a celebration, food has always been a uniting factor for Kashmiris. Whenever you think of Kashmir’s food culture, you picture elaborate, expansive dishes. Although wazwan is the world renowned seven-course cuisine of Kashmir, hakh maaz, nadir palak, etc. are among the staples that are a part of any home cooked meal.
Due to Kashmir’s traditional pride in eating home cooked meals, generally prepared by the women folk, the restaurant culture or eating out with families took a while to catch up.
Wazwan is generally prepared during family functions, primarily weddings, by chefs known as waza in local language.
However, as of late, a trend to dine out at cozy, swanky restaurants that are popping up everywhere has emerged among Kashmiris, especially in Srinagar city, towns and district headquarters.
Till not so long ago, eating out was largely reserved for males of the family and that too was considered a taboo.
Occasionally, it was used for business meetings or socializing with friends and colleagues.
It is important to note that the word restaurant was seldom used here, instead, it was hotel, generally looked down upon by the society.
Bakery and English tea have been a part of Srinagar culture since the British era.
In Srinagar, Ahdoos was the first outlet located at the most westernized part of Polo View, the Residency Road.
My mother told me that his father, my grandfather, would stop by Ahdoos to chat with friends over tea sessions.
He would also buy breads and pastries from there, which my mother says were delicious beyond words.
For decades, Ahdoos was a favorite meeting place for senior citizens, especially the elite class for long tea parties.
Ahdoos was founded more than a hundred years back in 1913 and remains one of the most frequented restaurants even now, famous for its non-vegetarian food, exquisite tea and king-sized chicken patties. In the turbulent 90s, Ahdoos was a hub of local, national and international journalists.
In the decade following 2000, restaurant business started thriving gradually which has started picking rampantly over the last few years. What we see now is that every corner of the city is becoming a hive of restaurants, cafés, and ice cream shops. My neighborhood used to be desolate, but now we have over a dozen restaurants in the area. It can be imagined how restaurants will mushroom up in the commercial districts of the city over time. At the time of Covid, home delivery and takeaway services gained a great momentum.
During the last few years, in other districts also, Kashmir has seen a dramatic increase in the number of restaurants and other eating outlets.
Among many middle-class families now, the habit of dining out is picking, it’s both leisurely and convenient.
AS for the menu, Kashmiris have a wide variety of options to choose from. Besides the Kashmiri wazwan that is served at almost all the restaurants, they also want to sample other cuisines, for which they have several restaurants around the city serving, or claiming to serve, authentic Chinese, Mexican, Lebanese, Indian, and Italian foods.
And it is not just men anymore, women are also frequent visitors to these eateries.
The fact that girls also hang out regularly in restaurants is no longer a stereotype. They walk into a restaurant independently and confidently without having to be escorted by a male.
Rapid urbanization, growing awareness of Western lifestyles, more women joining the workforce, higher disposable income and travelling are some of the factors that contributed to this culture in the valley. Further, TV and the internet widened the horizons of a common Kashmiri, and he became more open to new lifestyles. As he became more accustomed to the concept of convenience, he gained an appreciation for the idea of saving time while having fun as well.
Visiting restaurants improves your social skills and helps you live a healthier lifestyle. Dining out is an excellent way to spend time. It is a recreation and a healthy shift from a daily routine.
While eating out is fun, the traditional dastarkhwan around which a family gathers over lunch or dinner is irreplaceable.
On dastarkhwan or family dining table, elders of the family initiate conversations that range from serious to light ones while enjoying meals and the proximity of the loved ones. .
Family matters are addressed, resolutions sought and the head of the family acts as a guide and mentor in this position. Much of that has been lost now as lifestyle is becoming busier and cut throat.
Regular family gatherings create a positive atmosphere and healthy relationships. It is also a great stress buster.
Our families were not only kept intact by this practice, when it was an integral part of our lifestyle, but love and sharing were promoted as well, which in turn enhanced family dynamics. The result was a sense of peace and prosperity for each one of us, less stress and a constant appreciation of the values that keep a society healthy.