Winter is many nights gone in Kashmir and it seems to be the perfect time to lament about Harissa. After all, that is one of the two good things the winters bring. The other being snow.
Like folklore, no one is quite sure how the harissa tradition began. These days not many people bother about this and other questions Kashmir throws up. There are all sorts of stories conjured up about it, involving kings, paupers, Persians, soldiers, Mongolians and horse meat. But the same story tellers use this set of characters to trace the origins of waz-wan as well. So, one can’t be very sure. Story tellers often are people with sense of history gone for a very adventurous walk.
Harissa is a meat preparation and in Kashmir made exclusively with mutton. It is a slow cooked dished, cooked overnight in a large earthen vessel during winters and served in the early morning at breakfast. The meat is boiled in a variety of spices and combined with some starchy rice-water and oil, all the while cooking on a moderated heat and stirring slowly. The prolonged heat and constant stirring turns the meat into a stringy paste which is harissa essentially. The process can be replicated at home but only with an adequate quantity of boneless meat.
The traditional shops where it is served across the city have a uniform look. They are small, low establishments which, all things considered, look straight out of a Dickens novel. They are drab and damp like old kitchens and usually feature an old man surrounded by hungry boys. The walls are heavy with moisture and a dozen bags. And to complete the scene a dozen more young men – unshaven in their morning rawness – hang around the shop idly peeping through the glass windows.
The bakeries were already abuzz by the time the harissa shops started, which was soon after the Fajr prayers. Just when the sun has fully appeared on the horizon. Men were returning from the mosques, mumbling prayers under their breath. Somebody was fidgeting with the switchboard in the mosque. The microphone gave a sudden shriek and died away. A few women were out to buy bread. The streets were quiet save the chatter of a few students returning from one tuition en-route to another. They held their jackets tight and their books close. The early morning lives were just about to start. The half-insane cowherd who sang ballads to his cows and asked passersby for cigarettes. The milkman who only delivered pure milk in Ramazan. Stray dogs, cold and tired in the morning returned to garbage heaps. The army men marched back to their barracks after the night’s patrol. The rest of Srinagar slept.
This was early winter so snow was still some months away. Its absence lent a grey hue to dawns and everything appeared equal parts hopeful and gloomy. The harissa walla’s was a small establishment in a dilapidated building just across the Red Cross road in Srinagar. A few men had gathered selling vegetables from hand carts on the nearly empty street.
Dickens worked inside the shop. A heavy curtain marked the entrance to a spacious and crowded room. The walls were greasy with perspiration. The shop owner sat on the elevated platform where he, assisted by a few younger men, doled out bowl-fuls of harissa to the men who had gathered there. There were no women present.
That early in the morning people like to keep it simple – so you simply enter the shop and say “Salam” after which you tell the owner the quantity of harissa you’d like to have. Many arrive with tiffin boxes and casseroles to carry the harissa home. Others are served in the shop, on one of the six long benches. A pile of plates lay on one side of the shop owner. He gave the harissa vat a stirring, the plate a mop, and with a “Bismillah” dipped his bowl in the vat to bring it out full and brimming. On a stove near the wall he kept a skillet full of oil. Hot oil is poured over the harissa – so hot that it carries a flame and gives a dramatic, magician-like blaze when poured on the plate. A small kebab adjusted somewhere on the plate along with a little methi-maaz (originally a wazwan dish, and served with the harissa only as an extra accompaniment) and the plate is ready to be served.
The wall opposite to me carried a frame on which the 30 parts of the Holy Quran was written in a minute font. A few more pictures hung on the walls, gone blue with age, doing nothing to improve the mood of the place. A man came forward with my plate of harissa. He was wearing a shirt and two faded cardigans of which he had pulled the sleeves around his elbows. He wore baggy trousers and I imagined that he must have taken off his pheran to work in the joint and must have started at about seven in the morning.
The fresh girdah which is served with the harissa is tandoor baked. A soft and moist ball of dough is flattened forcefully with the palm and grooves made with fingers. This is then gently slapped against the wall of a tandoor. The girdah is a staple with harissa. Nothing else goes as well.
The usual clamour of the shops dims away from the ears. The soft fresh aroma of the bread and the wafting fragrance of the harissa is all that captures the senses. The feast is served on a small decrepit plate with a floral trimming. Mid way I pause, realising that I am doing it wrong. Season’s first harissa is to be eaten slowly, ceremoniously – not gulped down desperately. The people next to me were doing it wrong too. Talking way too much. Not noting the taste. How it melts in the mouth. How it warms the soul. And how, after you are through with one plate you ask for another without contemplation. There is just so much of metaphysics in a plate of pounded meat.
The first harissa of the season was just had. People were still streaming into the shops, closing time was fast approaching. There is no system of billing. The man on the platform and his assistants know who ate how much and charge accordingly. The girdah are complimentary.
Harissa is like an ambassador of the winters. It makes a small appearance in November and by the time we are in the throes of winter it is fully established across the city. That is the time when soon-to-be-in-laws exchange daeghfuls and mid level bureaucrats send equal quantities to impress their higher ups. As it is served throughout the winters and winters only, for this year, harissa has bid good bye till November. Some people take an aversion to the only-winters rule. But I think it adds a sense of mystique and charm to it. a tradition the origins of which are unclear. Harissa is a recipe left over from some forgotten pages of an ancient travelogue. But April is too late in the season to be talking about it anyhow. Spring is upon us and the government has opened the Tulip Garden for public just to make sure that spring is officially here. Elsewhere people may have to wait for the seasons to turn. But in Kashmir, we let the tulips officiate spring.