Aru is a charming pocket-size hamlet close to Pahalgham. We are on a day-trip here and have footed around it, admired its beauteous sights and squinting green meadows, plucked apples off trees, done the pony rides, got an enthusiastic update on the list of movies shot here and are about to head back to base when we ask our cabbie Khursheed if there is something very typical to the village we can see. He mulls over for a bit before hesitatingly asking if we would be keen in seeing a typical Kashmiri village khander (wedding). Could we have asked for anything better!
The next moment we are being welcomed at the bride's sprawling home. It is the wedding of Shaheena. Her groom has arrived from a few villages away and is shyly sitting with the boys. Maqbool Hasan, the bride's father, is playing the gracious host and immediately comes forward to greet us. As pleasantries are being exchanged we witness a flurry of activity. The wazwan has been announced. We ask Hasan if we can stay on for a while and take a look at the proceedings. "Surely! I invite you to partake of the wazwan with us," he says hospitably.
In a Kashmiri wedding, the wazwan, a multi-course feast, is the epitome of celebrations and the most important person after the couple is the vasta waza, or head chef. It's not unusual for parents to postpone the marriage if the waza of their choice is not available on the chosen day! Hasan triumphantly says he was lucky to have booked the waza in time as autumn is the season for weddings. He marches us to the spot where the backroom boys, the junior wazas, are getting ready to present the fare with a flourish.
Preparation for the wazwan had begun the night before when the vasta waza had arrived with his band of wazas. Usually their number is anywhere between 15 to 50, depending on the size of the gathering. The term wazwan means 'cook's shop’, which was until the contemporary world gave the expression a whole new twist of a sensory experience, which it definitely is.
Behind the scene
The pots are bubbling with all that’s to be served in a while and there is a heady mix of aromas. "The preparation is exacting and every step is done at the venue, from grinding of spices to pounding of meat. Each ingredient has to be fresh; the concept of something coming out of the cold storage is non-existent," a waza tells us. An emulsion of onion-garlic-pran (shallots), whole spices and moval or dried cockscomb for colouring are some of the basic ingredients in the Muslim style of cooking. The Pandits prefer using crushed spices, asafoetida and red chillies. Mustard oil, saunf (aniseed), saunth (ginger powder) and saffron remain common to both. With the Valley reaping a bountiful harvest of fruit, dried as well as fresh fruits are also tossed into dishes.
The wazwan is cooked traditionally in a veurabal or an open-air kitchen, in large round-bottomed, small-necked copper pots and on wood-fire. A customised fireplace, about 12' -15' long and around 1.5' high, is created for the purpose. "This arrangement is known as veura," Hasan enlightens us, adding, "In Kashmiri cooking ingredients are added at regular intervals and need to be stirred constantly. The convenient height and length of the veura facilitates that. Customarily, ours is slow cooking—the culinary art having travelled here from Persia centuries ago—and the regulated heat of firewood is ideal for that." I compliment Hasan on his almost-academic style of explanation at which he laughs heartily and says, "We are all passionate about food. We don't like our flavours messed up (read fusion). A dish should taste as it always has. We may eat little but we will have only the best!"
The gathering is settling down for the wazwan and we do not want to intrude right away. Moreover, we are keen to meet the bride. Hasan readily agrees and yells out to his wife. She leads us upstairs to an unadorned room where sits Shaheena attired in radiant red, looking pretty in her simplicity. She is surrounded by a crowd of aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews. Her marriage rituals are yet to take place and she has an anxious expression. Someone teases her on that and she breaks into a smile. We chat with her for a while and intrigue her with our status: women of all ages from one family. As we are about to leave, almost instantly and true to tradition, we dip into our wallets and present her shagun (token). She is initially reluctant to take it but when the eldest among us says it is dua (blessing) she smilingly agrees. Seated next to Shaheena is her brother making a note of all she’s been receiving. He asks his mother how he should put down our token. "From mas (maternal aunts) and beni (sisters)," she smiles, immediately forging a bond the way only Indians can!
Wedding guests are sprawled all over the garden and a few men have taken their place on the dastarkhawan (floor-covering) as they await the servers to come around with the first course of the wazwan. We are lead to the shamiyana (ceremonial tent) meant for women, who are sitting huddled on the ground and happily chatting. Looking at them is like seeing a sea of luminous faces sans any adornment, dressed in bright pherans and colourful head-scarves. What beauty! If there is one aspect that has refreshingly stood out in this village wedding it is the lack of extravagance. It is a cosy affair; a sharp contrast to ostentatious city weddings.
The arrival of an attendant carrying a tash-t-nari, the traditional jug and basin meant for washing hands at your individual place, signals the start of the service. It is truly a page out of old-world hospitality, decadent to say the least. Next follows the all-important trami or large nickle-plated copper platter laden with fragrant steamed rice (it’s a locally grown variety) topped with a long seek kebab (skewered mutton) running the length of the dish, and two servings of methi maz (mutton cooked with fenugreek) on either side. Each trami, about 18" in diameter, is shared by four persons and the methi maaz in a way demarcates boundaries as guests tunnel their way through the rice with their hands—cutlery is a no-no—to savour the first course, which is a sort of mezze. The next item is two large pieces of tabak maaz (ribs marinated in curd and pan-fried) and kokar (chicken in gravy). There is complete silence in the shamiyana as the ladies are all engrossed in the food. The servers are the only ones rushing in and out with big pots.
The second course follows soon and the first to be served is rista (mutton balls in reddish gravy), and in sequence comes daniwala qorma (mixed meat curry), ruvangan chaman (cottage cheese in tomato gravy) and ab gosht (meat prepared in milk). Each dish has a distinct lip-smacking flavour and colour. An assortment of tangy chutneys made with walnut and radish are the accompaniments as are small bowls of sweetened curd, the sweetness subtly blunting the salt-spice and adding to the enhancement of flavours. The final dish of the feast is gustaba (mutton balls in silken textured curd gravy). It's a large ball and only one piece is served per trami; and in a way it’s the full-stop to a wazwan. A round of firni (rice pudding) and many rounds of kehva (cardamom flavoured green tea served with slivers of almond), however, follow.
"The wazwan in a big city like Srinagar will have many more servings per course. A lot of it goes waste. Around 1.5 kg to 2 kg assorted meat per trami is more than sufficient. In the villages we believe in delighting our guests but not going overboard."Hasan tells us. While my family has enjoyed eating from a trami, being a vegetarian I relished just a bit of the food; but what an experience it has been. A wazwan is truly a culinary celebration! Aru will always remain special on that account.
Getting there:Srinagar-Pahalgam is 4.5 hrs by road. Pahalgam to Aru is 12 km.
Published Jetwings May 2016