Stairway To Carnivorous Heaven: Wazwan – The Kashmiri Feast

While most rock fans associate Led Zeppelin with Stairway to Heaven, Robert Plant always believed that the eclectic Kashmir was the band’s greatest work. He once said: “It’s so right; there’s nothing overblown, no vocal hysterics. Perfect Zeppelin.”

Interestingly, Kashmir has nothing to do with the union territory of Kashmir but was written after Plant was inspired during a drive through a desolate desert area in Southern Morocco. The idea of Kashmir was like EL Dorado or Atlantis, a forbidden city of untold possibilities.  As the lyrics go: “Ooh, yeah yeah, oh, yeah yeah, But I'm down oh, yeah yeah, oh, yeah. Yeah, but I'm down, so down. Ooh, my baby, oh, my baby. Let me take you there. Come on, oh let me take you there. Let me take you there”

While the band might never have visited Kashmir, they might as well have been writing about the land which people call heaven on earth and which remains the repository of some of the greatest culinary delights on earth. After a gustatory tour through Amritsar, in this edition, Avinash visits Kashmir where he samples the Wazwan - a multi-course meal consisting mainly of meat whose history dates back to the 14th Century.

Origin Story

As Gowher Rah, CEO of the picturesque Rah Bagh By The Orchard explains in a chat with Foodgasm, it all started with the Mongol ruler Timur who invaded India in 1348 during the reign of the Nasiuddin Muhammad of the Tughlaq dynasty. Timur brought many skilled professionals including chefs from Samarkand (modern-day Uzbekistan) to Kashmir.

The word Wazwan is derived from the Sanskrit Waaz-e which translates to “one who cooks”. Most of the dishes have Persian names and even the word for cook in Farsi is Aashpaz. It’s believed that a cook called AshPaz worked in a langar kitchen and modern-day Wazwan assimilates a plethora of cooking styles including Persian, Afghani and Turkish.

The chefs who make the meal also have their own lingo which isn’t even known to the locals. Ashgun stands for kebab and Rang means rice. Check out this video to learn more words from the secret language.  

Purists point out that the true Wazwan consists of 36 courses. A normal team of Wazas consists of a head chef called Wouste Waze and several junior chefs.  

The key to a proper Wazwan is to ensure that one only uses freshly slaughtered lamb meat, and you can’t even cook many of the dishes without fresh mutton. Sometimes, when the guest list is big, the preparation can take all night and day. Normally, it takes six to seven chefs almost 16 hours to cook a hundred kilograms of mutton for about 400 guests. There’s a degree of meticulousness involved which includes mincing the mutton to the perfect texture to ensure the uniformity in the size of the chops.

The Mainstays of the Kashmiri Wazwan

Wazwan is like the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  There are mainstays like Iron Man, Thor, Hulk and Captain America, and several others that drop in from time to time.

While the full course can have 36 meals, the seven dishes that must be present are:  

1)     Tabakh Maaz – Crispy ribs of lamb simmered in curd which is deep fried till the fat turns hard and crunchy.

2)     Koshur Kabab – Kashmir’s version of the Seekh Kebab which tastes best with onions dipped in vinegar and chilli powder.

3)     Riste – A sumptuous meatball prepared in a paprika-saffron-fennel spice gravy.

4)     Waza Kokur – Two halves of a full chicken cooked whole.

5)     Rogan Josh – Tender lamb cooked in spices.

6)     Tomato Paneer Waza – Soft pieces of juicy cottage cheese in a tomato gravy.

7)     Goshtaba – A big meatball cooked in a yoghurt which signals the end of the main course.

Some other dishes which can also make an appearance are:

  • Daniwal Korma – Lamb roasted in yoghurt spices and onion puree, topped with coriander.
  • Mushroom – One of the vegetarian items made with onions and Kashmiri spices.
  • Waze Palak and Baby Ristas – Spicy spinach cooked with small meatballs.
  • Martsewagun Korma – A spicier version of rogan josh.
  • Lahab Kabab – Flattened sour and spicy mutton kebabs cooked in yoghurt.
  • Doudh Ras – A big lamb chunk cooked with a fennel-based spice mix, cardamom, and partially-evaporated milk.
  • Yakhnee – A savoury gravy made of cooked milk, salt and mint.  
  • Lahabi Kabab – Flattened mutton kababs cooked in yoghurt.
  • Dum Aelva - Potatoes cooked in yoghurt.

How to eat

Wazwan is usually eaten while sitting down on the floor in groups of four. Before eating one washes their hands in a mobile basin called Tash-t-naer which is taken around by attendants. The ritual is called Dast-paak.

Some other attractions:

Bread Supremacy

If there is one place in India that can give Mumbai a run for its bread obsession, it’s Kashmir with its thousands of varieties of bread. One of the favourite local pastimes is to visit the Kandur (traditional baker) for fresh bread and hot chai. This isn’t a Western-style pick-up but somewhere people go to gossip and catch up and let their hair down.

Here are some types of bread you have to try out in Kashmir:

1) Tsot-Girda: A medium-sized bun found at every Kashmiri breakfast table.

2) Lavasa: Puffy bread made from maida.

3) Tsohwour: Bagel-like bread daubed with sesame seeds. 

4) Makai Tsot:  Flat Kashmiri bread made from corn flour.

5) Kulcha: Palm-sized bread which can be sweet or savoury.

Walnut Fudge at Moonlight Bakery

Moonlight Bakery located at Dargah, Hazratbal is one of Kashmir’s gems with its walnut fudge and ginger biscuits. While it might look like an ordinary shop from a distance, the 119-year-old legacy is evident once you step in. For the better part of its history, it catered to foreigners. Currently, it is being run by Moonis Mehraj and the recipe was first prepared by Moonis’ grandfather Ghulam Mohammed. It’s a closely guarded family legacy and no outside chefs are involved in its preparation.

Kashmiri Kahwah or Kashmiri Tea

Another quintessential Kashmiri experience is the Kashmiri Kahwah, made by boiling green tea leaves with saffron, cinnamon, cardamom and sometimes even roses. It’s served with sugar or honey and crushed nuts, usually almonds or walnuts. Interestingly, the Kahwah is made in a samovar which originates from Russia. It’s believed Kawhah leaves made its way to Kashmir through the Spice Route. While Kawhah in Kashmiri means “sweetened tea” the word could also be derived from the Turkish word for coffee kahveh which might be from the Arabic qahwah.

Coming back to Zeppelin, maybe it’s impossible to buy a Stairway to Heaven but there certainly are things that glitter beyond gold, and you can certainly smell them and taste them in Kashmir.