If a group of friends were to arrive uninvited at your apartment after a wild night of partying, would you pull out the red carpet or slam the door in their faces? A Kashmiri host may not even be allowed the token sigh - let alone the liberty of packing them off to the nearest café that opens early.
Instead, tradition would compel him to rustle up a good wazwan for them, or whatever comes closest to such a meal with the ingredients available at hand.
A reflection of Kashmiri hospitality, the term wazwan conveys the ritualistic significance of a lavish community repast - quite the jewel in the crown of Kashmiri gastronomic customs. A blend of the words waz (an expert in the culinary arts) and wan (a reference to shops' opulent display of delicacies) the word's nomenclature delves deep into the roots of the custom. With its scale vastly diminished from a mighty 72-course meal to a humble 36-course meal (that you would still struggle with, believe me), the wazwan is now just a preserve of parties and weddings.
The custom of making guests feel at home, laying out a lavish spread and bonding over the leisurely process of sampling each course are enduring rituals of Kashmiri culture that are resolutely observed at a wazwan. The sumptuous meal, seasoned with the richness of Kashmiri spices and slow-cooked over a charcoal fire, celebrates Kashmiri cuisine at its best (read lamb!) and doubles up as an invisible blanket.
We headed to Chor Bizarre on a cold January evening, hoping to beat the winter chill by indulging in a repast fit for the kings. This slice of Kashmiri extravaganza recommended uninhibited indulgence, so we decided to chuck our diet plans for the day. Chor Bizarre's quaint charm practically oozed from the crevices of the mirrored walls, and the ornate perfume bottles displayed in the tables contributed to its old-world aura.
After washing down some fried lotus stems with beer, we settled down on the floor (some of us gracelessly) around a low table stretched across a room lit with diyas. Traditionally eaten by hand, the meal is preceded with the ceremonial washing of hands in an ornate, splayed-out copper vessel.
The tarami is a beautiful start to the wazwan - a huge, silver, ornamental plate is uncovered to reveal fragrant white rice overlaid with haaq (spinach cooked in its own spices), Kashmiri seekh kebab, lamb cooked in plum gravy, mooli akhrot ki chutney and rajmah. Now, I am not a big fan of rajmah, but there was something about this one's creamy texture and delicately tempered flavour that made it stand out. While the cylindrical kebab had oodles of flavor, the mutton was beautifully tangy and overlaid with a generous dose of plummy essence.
This was followed by a wazwan staple - the gorgeous Goshtaba - lamb meatballs flavoured with cardamom in a yoghurt gravy. The tamatar chaaman (paneer), mutton yakhni and khatte seb baingan (eggplant and green apples in a tamarind gravy) should have made the head chef very proud of his immaculately attired wazas.
In fact, the guidance provided by the wasta waza (head chef) is critical in the preparation of the meal. Woven into the ritualistic practices observed at a wazwan are also the deference due to the head chef and appreciation of the food while partaking of the meal.
This wazwan presented a harmonious melding of the two styles of cooking - that of Kashmiri Muslims, who rely heavily on onion and garlic, and Kashmiri Pandits, who prefer to season their food with curd and asafoetida. Each style has a unique appeal for the palate, essaying flavour and pungency in equal measure. Personally, I was charmed by the sheer depth of flavours, enhanced simply with the ample incorporation of yoghurt.
Saffron flavoured yoghurt, a sweet-sour chutney, phirni and kehwa (flavoured Kashmiri green tea) concluded the ceremony.
Thus ended my first sampling of a wazwan, and it was everything it had promised to be - the showcasing of a now-waning art of cooking and a legacy of Kashmir that continues to be cherished.