Legacy chefs on why Wazwan, a 14th-century formal feast, continues to fascinate people — and what does the royal spread mean to the denizens of the valley.
Video credit: Pinaak Kumar
It may sound trite, but there is a very good reason why most think of Wazwan when there is a mention of Kashmir. As one of the traditional formal meals of India, Wazwan, a feast that the legendary Jiggs Kalra had dubbed as the “next best thing to being in the Valley itself”, remains one of the most astounding creations that captures the essence of Kashmiriyat.
Think about it.
The 36-dish (and evolving) spread is often explained as a Muslim wedding feast. “And yet,” says Srinivas A., Senior Sous chef, Chor Bizarre, “when you look at each dish that is part of this elaborate feast, it transforms into this delicious tome on Kashmir in its entire cultural glory through the eras. The 14th-century concept was, as per food lore, introduced by Emperor Taimur or Timur (a Turco-Mongol conqueror who founded the Timurid Empire). He brought the first set of Wazas to the valley.
Wazwan is a very nuanced marriage of the original cuisine (that of the Pandits of Kashmir, whose food was influenced by Buddhism during Emperor Ashoka’s reign) and various influences down centuries —from the Afghans to Armenians to Iranians, who came to the grand capital of Srinagar post the Afghani war that had turned the valley into a prosperous trading hub. They not just imparted unique flavours and new cooking techniques to Kashmiri culinary heritage, like the use of yakhni or rich bone broth, but also introduced breads to the Valley.”
The Sufi connect
Of course, what finally made it to the celebratory meal list was a jugalbandi of dishes, adds Chef Srinivas, “that the Wazas curated after learning and adapting to Kashmir’s native techniques and ingredients. Dishes that are considered classics of the original food practices such as Roganjosh, Haaq, Khatte Baingan and Rajma , and those that were commonly loved by people living along the Silk Route, like rice, and had the Sufis and saint’s blessings.”
Legacy specialist and restaurateur Chef Rahul Wali, who runs the Mumbai restaurant, KongPoush, adds, “The first iteration of Wazwan with about 11 dishes is said to have been curated under the watchful eyes of the Sufis and Rishis, who held a prominent position in Kashmir of the time. It had a healthy combination of dishes that travelled with Taimur and later, invaders and traders, with a good presence of popular native favourites.”
One such prominent Sufi to have greatly influenced not only the making of Wazwan but also established the khanqah, a diktat that regulated the consumption of bread during the day, was legendary Shaikh Hamza Makhdoom, a Sufi mystic living in Kashmir. History and mentions of the food culture, especially around the 15th and 16th century in books such as Dastur-i-Salikin and Tuḥfat-ul-Aḥbab (written by Mulla Muhammad Ali Kashmiri), wax eloquent on the saints, artists and the first group of commercial cooks who established the Wazwan tradition.
The coming to the valley of the Wazas, as per Chef Rahul, “popularised the food and introduced the profession of aashpaz or chefs to the Valley”. It also introduced the idea of sustainability and zero wastage. Wazwans were not just elaborate feasts, but also helped build a semblance of community even during turbulent times that followed.
Building a community
Back then, like today, Wazwan — despite its reputation as a Muslim wedding feast — was enjoyed by people of all faiths, says culinary custodian Chef Nisar Ahmed. It is the secular nature of the feast, adds Chef Ahmed, “that has helped elevate what was till about the 16th century a hallmark of the Muslim elite cuisine, into a remarkable icon”.
Chef Ahmed, whose own wedding had close to 24 dishes served on the trami, and who mastered the art of Wazwan-making by watching and collaborating with the likes of Ahad Waza from Srinagar, Kadir Nanwai from Anantnag (both fourth generations of the original Wazas) regards the formal feast as a “necessary crash course on everything Kashmiri”.
This feast has, he continues, in its way of cooking, procuring of ingredients, serving style (Wazwan is a four-course dining experience) and presentation, preserved much of the traditional tehzeeb that existed since the time of King Harsha. Among them: the use of copper trays called majma to have meals; the practice of cooking food in degh; the use of cow’s milk, ghee, mustard oil for cooking, of local fruits to add flavours to the meat dishes and vice versa, and, of course, saunf and saunth (fennel and ginger powder) to flavour the dishes; and the washing of hands at the Dastarkhwan with tasht-near (a portable basin), a custom that travelled all the way from Central Asia.”
The first and the evolution
“Fascinatingly”, says Chef Rahul, “the earlier iterations of Wazwan looked more like an attempt to recreate food that the Mongols and subsequent invaders and traders were used to eating. It was often seen as a shadow to the superior feast served in Persia and Central Asia. But that wasn’t for long. Courtesy the first Wazas and artists who accompanied each raid and eventually made Srinagar their home, Wazwan’s repository of dishes not only increased but, by the beginning of the 16th century, had evolved into a spread that was enticing. Part of the reason was also religious conversions, which led to a further amalgamation of Pandit cuisine into that of Muslim, and into Wazwan.”
The golden age, however, says Chef Srinivas, “came with the Mughals, especially during the second innings of Emperor Jahangir’s era who, in his book Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri, ponderingly remarked, ‘They boil it fresh and allow it to get cold and then eat it’. Chef Srinivas finds the Kashmiri version of the Iranian Abi Gosht or Aab Gosht — a poor man’s treat — one of the finest testimonies to their Waza’s culinary ingenuity and craftsmanship.
“It’s hard to say when and how, but the Wazwan feast rose to become a national icon under Emperor Shah Jahan. The use of ratanjot or cockscomb in many dishes, including the Rista and Roganjosh, evolved around this time, so did the use of alu-bukhara and alu or potatoes, the whole set of korma, the use of dry fruits and the native praanj that was till then considered medicinal and not a tastemaker,” he adds.
The golden period
Concurs Chef Ahmed, who terms the Mughal and subsequent Afghan rule as the renaissance period for the Wazwan. “More dishes were added, meat that till that time was only mutton now included fish and chicken, the use of saffron was encouraged, halwa was added and somewhere around that time was born the Kong Phirni. And Wazwan that was once a reasonable 7 to 11 dishes, was inching to the 36 mark, which takes a team of Wazas almost two days to prepare and cook. Most of the meat dishes, including Rista and Gostaba balls, are prepared not just when the meat is warm, but also in the night.”
It was, he continues, “under the Mughals and a few minor kings later that the Wazwan serving style was standardised. The order of the Wazwan begins with the arrival of the trami with five dishes placed on a mound of rice. These include Tabak Maaz, Methi Maaz, Seekh Kebab, Waza Kokur and Dhen. This will be followed with Haaq, Nadru, Roganjosh, Rista, and so on. The last course will have Gostaba, given that it has this sublime sweetness about it. Doon Chetni and Mujj chutney — the two must-haves are often the pass arounds during the meal that could last for a good three hours.”
“There is no rule as to how many dishes can be put in a Wazwan to call it a Wazwan. The feast often depends on the economics,” adds Chef Rahul, “In Kashmir, you would find Wazwan with just 11 dishes to those that are now challenging the golden mark of 36 as well, thanks to traditional cooks who continue to explore more and add new versions such as paneer chamman that was never a part of the cuisine.” The trami served at Chor Bizarre itself has 15 to 16 dishes including the Kahwa (saffron infused green tea) and phirni.
The only factor that dictates Wazwan is the Sufi philosophy of nothing going to waste. As Chef Rahul says, “To make the feast, a young sheep of about 11 to 15 kilos is slaughtered, and the mark of a good spread is when the Waza has used every single part of the mutton to create a dish that scores in taste and technique.”
That philosophy and the zeal of the Wazas to exceed with the right patronage eventually elevated Wazwan — which means a meal cooked by the cooks — into a culinary treasure, one that today is above and beyond the cuisine that once was a reason for its curation.