Singing and spinach make for a charming, if unlikely, combination.
It’s a bracingly cool morning in Srinagar, where we’re attending a friend’s wedding. We’re cross-legged on the lawn helping her aunts and grand-aunt de-stalk crackly-fresh spinach leaves for the wedding lunch. As the community unites, from different parts of the country or city — which involves braving bandhs, curfews and random stone-pelting — to celebrate, preparations to feed about a thousand people are already in full swing.
The women sit in a circle singing beguiling folk songs, steadily working their way through baskets piled high with the leaves. All the while, a kahwa lady hands out cup after cup of the soothing sweet green tea, fragrant with saffron, spiced with cardamom and afloat with crisp almond slivers, from a silver samovar, which bubbles ceaselessly through the three-day-wedding thanks to cleverly concealed cavities holding glowing charcoal. Beside it, there’s a basket of tandoor-baked soft Kashmiri bread from down the road for breakfast. It’s necessarily light. After all, everyone’s gearing up for wazwan — an elaborate, formal, overwhelmingly generous meal integral to Kashmiri Muslim weddings.
A huge tent has been set up next door to the house for the preparation of this meal, which is served for lunch and dinner through the wedding and features anything from 20 to 44 different courses — most of them meat, mainly mutton. The mathematics is precise and has to be adhered to, following tradition. Shahid Mir, brother of the bride Shaila, explains it, as he walks us around the quaint kitchen-tent, which bustles with activity — hoards of oversized furiously bubbling pots, crackling wood-fires and about ten cooks preparing the meal with the kind of regimental precision, poise and co-ordination that can only come from having done this hundreds of times before.
“For thousand people, they use 120 goats,” he says, “and about 1,100 chickens.” Wazwan is served in huge plates, each of which is shared by four people. “Every plate holds around 4 to 5 kilos of meat.” The brilliance of the cook really comes into play here, because every dish tastes distinctly different. Like the conductor of an orchestra, the head cook directs and guides the team. With minimal talk, responsibilities are divided. One group cuts the meat, ensuring it’s halal. The next lot sits in a row, pounding endlessly to tenderise it. The steady thud’s rhythm is surprisingly cohesive with the folk songs, also sung through the wedding. Another group does the blending, boiling and frying.
With 24 courses on the day of the wedding, this is — of course – far more than most people can comfortably eat. However following long-established protocol handed down through generations, Kashmiri families ensure that there’s no reduction whatsoever in the amount of food served.
After we grapple helplessly with a couple of meals, wasting embarrassing quantities, Shahid’s mom Shamima explains the mystery of how the rest of the wedding guests seem to be clearing their plates. It’s a delightfully practical solution. To really enjoy the nuances and flavours of every course, guests are given bags, so they can just pack up the excess food and take it home.
As the tempting scents of smoky kebabs, spice-laden curries and smoking-hot ghee begin to weave their way across the garden, we sit down for our first wazwan experience. The boys in the family do all the carrying and serving, so one of the cousins sets down the tash-t-nari, a quaint silver basin accompanied by a jug straight out of Arabian nights so we can wash our hands. Then comes the plate, piled high with rice, topped with a dash of cooked spinach curry and a dense, meaty gravy made with lamb liver, kidney and intestines.
Then, the wazwan starts moving faster. Scalding chicken red curry served with a huge ladle is carefully poured on the rice, along with a huge meaty piece of chicken for each of the four people sitting around the plate. Then come the tender sheek kebabs. Rogan josh, fiery with red Kashmiri chillies. The delicious tabak maz, which are flat rib cuts cooked in spiced milk and then fried in pure ghee till they’re dark and crackling. Delectably spongy paneer in a rich tomato sauce. Gushtaba, soft mutton meatballs cooked in a gravy of fresh curd, end the meal.
Not surprisingly we loll about like pythons once we’re done. More kawah. More singing. The thudding from the tent begins again. After all, there’s wazwan for dinner.