From spinach to Dandelion greens, there’s a lot of love for all things leafy in Kashmiri cuisine…
“You can also call ‘Haakh te Bhaate’ our national slogan!” laughs Zareef Ahmed Zareef, a renowned Kashmiri writer and poet, while reminiscing about the saag his mother made. He adds, “Haakh-te-bhaate is a Kashmiri term equivalent to dal chawal. Kashmiris can’t do without their plate of rice (bhaate) and some greens (haakh) to go along with that. People generally assume that Kashmiris consume more mutton and chicken. But, with their meat, they also consume a lot more lentils and greens compared to people in many other states. Almost every kitchen garden in Kashmir will have saag growing today,” he explains.
Kashmir’s culinary choices
Lifestyle and weather play a critical role in determining the culinary aspect of a region. Kashmir faces extremely harsh winters, with summers barely there for two months. Zareef Sahab adds, “The main occupation of Kashmiris has been farming and rearing animals. They walk miles with the livestock. As they rear livestock, that’s what they consume too. Rice, greens, and corn are extensively grown. They need food that provides warmth and immunity to fight against cold during harsh winters.”
The extensively grown greens are the staple diet of Kashmiris. Amongst the many kinds, Haakh is popular worldwide.
- Haakh is the best example of simple and clean cooking. Just hing, a couple of green and red chillies, namak swaad anusaar, and this is our heaven on a plate. The leaves are used whole, making it very easy to cook.
- Equivalent to haakh is kadam or Monj Haakh, known as knol khol. Chances are if you’ve had a Kashmiri achaar, this is what you’ve had. Monj Haakh has a gobhi that is also cooked with its leaves. The gobhi tastes a bit like turnips (shulghum). A friend’s aunt once showed me, in the bylanes behind the Dal Gate, how to select Monj Haakh. “Pick the ones that are large, fresh, and light green.” Like any green, Monj Haakh too can be cooked alone or in a variety of combinations. In Kashmir, greens are preferably cooked with mutton, chicken, fish, cottage cheese, potatoes, eggs, and even eggplant.
- My favorite is Sonchal. It is a beautiful looking wild green and readily available with equally beautiful tiny flowers. You may find it anywhere around the roadside and in parks. You can also grow it in your kitchen garden. Many people sun-dry and store it for later consumption. The thing about many of these greens is that their recipes are low on ingredients, but high on taste and nutrition and easy on the pocket. This also makes them a staple and again reminds me of the term Haakh te bhaate
- The laal saag or amaranth as we know it is called Wasta Haakh in Kashmiri. You’d say it is laal saag just called by a different name, and I may be prejudiced but I feel because of the soil and water of Kashmir, this saag is even more delicious in Kashmir! They are both red and green. The most popular combination of Wasta Haakh is mutton, chicken, paneer, and lotus stem. It is a substitute for spinach because of its salty and spinach-like taste.
- Mujj Haakh are the greens of small red radish. These greens were such a pleasant surprise for me. I first tried them in combination with fish. The whole radish with the leaves intact is slow cooked till the fish is cooked and the leaves and radish soak up all its juices, making the saag more delicious than the fish. This is what I feel for every saag that is cooked in combination with a meat —the taste of the saag is elevated to another level compared to the meat!
Chef Kamlesh Negi also points out that resources were used to their maximum in olden times. Like dehydrating vegetables. It was akin to saving for tough times, so nothing is wasted. You use what you can and save the rest for the harsh winters. I remember tasting the stinging nettle at the Masque pop-up in Leh. Chef told me that they had foraged many ingredients and one of them was this stinging nettle that they had used as a broth to be served along with momos! Genius. They even brought back many herbs like dried mint and wild thyme back to Mumbai which were used on their menu at Masque.
- Hund or dandelion greens are used fresh and dry, sun-dried specially for the Kashmiri winter. I call it the bitter haakh. You have to soak them in water and then drain before cooking. So many of these greens have been the essential element in traditional Kashmiri cuisine. Though it is less common now, many households have preserved the tradition and continue to cook Hund especially in combination with meats.
- Zareef Sahab mentions one variety of hund called Lussa which is given to women after childbirth because of its healing properties. Another haakh —called Pumba Haakh — whose herbal roots are used for medicinal purposes — is eaten in combination with fish and tomatoes in winters.
- Kral Mound has a spicy/peppery taste. It is highly recommended for women with a heavy menstrual cycle.
- Aubuj is acidic in taste. It gets used in preparing curries with mutton and chicken and has an astringent quality. Apart from the culinary aspect, these greens are jam-packed with antioxidants, antidepressants, and are high in nutrients.
- Apart from these popular varieties of Kashmiri Greens, a few are known only to locals or culinary experts. People living on the outskirts have the right skill to chop and cook these greens the best. You might not find them with a local vegetable vendor because of less demand. However, gujjars in the mountains still sell these varieties and supply them to city vendors on order. Vopul Haak — a wild saag that grows in spring, in jungles — is one of those.
- Wan Palakh grows wildly in the waste areas of Pahalgam, Tangmarg, and Gulmarg. With a sweet mild taste, it is high in nutrient value. In fact, the humble palak gets a place during weddings in the wazwan for cooking a delicacy called haakh-te-rista. Rista is hand-pounded mutton meatballs usually big in size, but with the haakh they are moulded into smaller meatballs. The cooking technique here is called Dagith in which the saag is chopped fine and then cooked till it becomes a glossy paste. Very different from the earlier preparations that I mentioned.
- Then there is Nunnar. Anita Tikkoo, Landscape Architect and Sourdough Bread Baker, says Nunnar literally grows wild in her kitchen garden in Delhi! She cooks it with meat or just stir fry with potatoes. They are a bit naturally sour or tangy in taste and are also great for making chutneys.
Each variety of Kashmiri green is different in terms of shape, size, texture, and cooking technique. The harvesting season is different and yet each of them —whether popular or not — is equally valued and consumed by a Kashmiri. We find peace with a plate of Haakh and rice. From the richest to the poorest, every family needs a green on their dastarkhaan. From the happiest events to the saddest moments, these greens are a part of Kashmiri cuisine.
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