A lot happens over the dastarkhwan. Food comes in handy as the practical short form for love. My grandmother (like most grandmothers ) knew only two ways to show concern – making the person eat and praying for them, often together. We spread our dasterkhwan wide, just in case. In an apt symbolism, the traditional dasterkhwan (dining cloths) used to be a piece of rolled cloth which could be extended if more people arrived at mealtime.
When it comes to gifting food in Kashmir, however, nothing beats bakery. Much like boxes of confectionery in other parts of the world, we carry brown paper bags of something baked. If a child passes matric, some aunt is sure to drop by with a dozen or a half of plain cakes. Or even as many pastries. (Matriculaion is a big event in Kashmir even today.) Presenting bakery is an established gifting custom in Srinagar and, by God, we have a lot to choose from. From traditional baked fare like bakerkhwanis or the flaky puffs to all types of cakes and pastries, bakeries are well stocked in Kashmir. They do a brisk business throughout the year, but more so during the results of class 10th or 12th, or when the Haj pilgrims depart or return on the two Eids and throughout the marriage season. Yes, it is a booming enterprise and almost all bakeries have their loyal customers. The erstwhile basraq and naabed-nout (which was a vessel made from sugar crystals) are not considered fashionable anymore in the city. There was a time when, in Srinagar, sweetmeats and confectioneries were limited in availability and options. This has largely changed over the years, and brought in a new wedding custom of sending a copper tray full of assorted sweets.
But nothing says celebration like the good ol’ wazwan. While cakes are a standard, wazwan isn’t considered too outlandish a gift on certain occasions. Of course for that, as in life, you have to pick your moment. Families of to be married couples frequently exchange trays of wazwan delicacies – a trayful of whole chicken, or ristas or may be the full wazwan – a few pieces of each item (seven in all). Of course the receiving side doesn’t keep all of it to itself – it is further parceled it off to as many siblings and cousins as it can be. Gifting wazwan to people outside Kashmir is even easier now, now that it is available packaged in tins.
As our customs progress with time there is a timeless tradition of giving almonds in felicitation. There is something about the hay coloured, paisley shaped dry fruit that speaks Kashmir like nothing else. During weddings, almonds and toffees and ten rupees notes folded in fans are showered on the bride and the groom from copper trays. Students are given packets of almonds on passing exams. Just about any celebration is incomplete without a few kilos of almonds popping up somewhere. (There is also a wedding song dedicated to almonds). In rural areas, walnuts are given in place of almonds.
Winters are the season for harissa, and our long winters would be longer without it. If you know a high ranking bureaucrat, know for sure that he or she will be receiving a pot of harissa in winters! Again, families of to-be-married or newly married couples send harissa to each other, as they do cooked fish. Fish in Kashmir is fried and slow cooked with vegetables for hours and hours and served cold. (And prepared in secret, without fanfare till ready.)
I am not aware of the gifting norms in villages, but when I visited an acquaintance in a village his family would not let me return empty handed. Quickly was the greenest gourd clipped from the vine, and a dozen or so aubergines and a fresh kohlrabi and packed for me to carry back to the city. Another acquaintance from Islamabad, make sit a point to send a box of sweet Islamabad kulchas on every Eid, for old times’ sake.
Recently, on one occasion I was about to leave the shrine of Syed Sahab at Sonwar, when a woman handed me a tin foil box of halwa, I put it in my pocket and thanked her. On most days, in one part of the city or the other, you will find someone distributing taher to wayfarers and passersby. There is no one particular reason why taher would be prepared – from a good news (like engagement, passing exams) to bad news (like illness) from seeing nightmares to ward off the evil eye. On specific days people prepare food to be given in charity. Each revered saint has a day, 3rd of each lunar month for Naqshband Sahab, 6th for Hazrat Ameer Kabir RA, 11th for Ghous-ul Azam Dastgeer, 13th for Sheikh Hamza Makhhdoomi RA, so on and the devotees give out food on those days. It is a centuries old custom and the food could be anything from nun chai to a complete wazwan. We are a simple traditional people, but we have our quirks.
We have preserved this generosity of spirit through the most difficult of times. Whenever the city has been ravaged by war, we have tried to trace our steps back. Diminished, but not extinguished. In 2010 when tourists were trapped in hotels due to the curfews and unrest, the small bed and breakfast establishments ran out of food. People around the localities provided supplies including fuel to cook the food everyday, till all the tourists could leave. just last year in the months of curfew, people donated food and meat to the community kitchens at hospitals. I wonder, will we escape all wars unscathed. But hope lies at the bottom of the taeher daeg and you have to divvy up the yellow rice for it to be spread all round.
PS: For the uninitiated “taher” is a rice preparation dyed yellow with turmeric and fried lightly, topped with browned onions. It is what you see in the picture above.
(Thank you, Ms. Marryam H Reshii, for your invaluable inputs)