Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Kashmir. Love at first bite.

And I'm back from another long hiatus; something that I've been taking a little too often. And before I start posting about cakes made from Snickers and ice-cream made from cherries, I thought I'd post food photos from my vacation instead.

Which was in Kashmir, of the Jammu & Kashmir variety. The air there is... different. It smells different, you take in lungfuls of it and exhale with unadulterated bliss. It smells of saffron chai and roses and snow and a wee bit of gunpowder residue. Wish I could've bottled it up and brought it back with me.

The locales are unadulterated eye-candy; there's so much to drink and eat in. And that gets literal when it comes to the food. You feel hungry, 24/7. It's the cold air. Doesn't make me a glutton.

Non-vegetarians have it better though. Especially the ones who like mutton. Which totally rules me out, I'm not-at-all a fan of the meat, but the cold, cold air (here we go) justifies the average Kashmiri's consumption of it... they've come up with some ingeniously delicious ways of using it, that even I was a total convert by the end of Day 1.

We'll build on to the meat. You can vicariously feast on the fruit and tea and then the vegetarians can beat a hasty retreat.

A word of caution: you need to have a completely immunized iron gut if you want to taste Kashmir in all its glory. Pointless, otherwise. You'll have to subsist on multiple packets of Lays and cans of Coke. You can Google for photos of those. Or shed all fancy-ness and hop on the street food Express (with a wee bit of home-cooked and gourmet)!

We'll start with Kashmiri Falooda. Condensed milk, vermicelli noodles, rose syrup and ice-cream with bits of tutti-fruti.

And the ice-cream is cranked away to glory in an old-fashioned salt-and-ice ice cream machine. It tastes bloody fantastic.

You need to scoop up the tutti-fruiti, condensed milk, Rooh Afza and the ice-cream in one bite.

You can make a complete fool of yourself, stuffing your face with huge bites of ice-cream, because you won't see those folks ever again in your life. Perks of being on vacation.

Being on vacation also means throwing concerns about calories out the airplane/train/car window. Drive down the nearest Dhaba/tea shop and try the deep-fried deliciousness. And the local tea. It almost always tastes fantastic.

And in Kashmir's case, tea can be substituted with Kahwa. Green tea gets pimped up with a couple of elaichis, a strand or two of saffron, cinnamon, crushed almonds and saffron honey. Kashmiri folks sip on it all day long; and when in Kashmir... let's just say I drank a lot of Kahwa.

Kahwa and tea is omnipresent. Even in the middle of the great Dal Lake.

Although there are plenty of tea shops on land as well. You enter them with some degree of self-consciousness, worried they might hate you for acting like locals slumming it. But they dispel it with such warmth... buy a round of chai, plates of pakora and gossip with the locals.

Or you walk on the road and see a huge crowd milling around a vat of something... And they urge you to drink up a mug full of saffron-flavoured almond milk. Actual saffron, actual almonds.

The cold/temperate climate also plies Kashmir with greens and fruit like the ground has been pumped with steroids. Except that it's all organic and dee-lee-shus.

There's roasted corn sold for a few rupees.

Watermelons! Cucumbers! Juicy and sweet and even pretty!

Amchur (raw mango powder) is sprinkled on. It's like eating Hajmola and chewing Watermelon-flavoured gum at the same time. Which I guess you wouldn't know if you weren't a fat kid.

Cherries. The last time I saw cherries this pretty, they were made of plastic. And the last time I've had cherries this delicious... um. I don't think I've had cherries this delicious.

Strawberries. A fraction of the price they're sold for at Madras. Infinity times better.

Moving on to the most important meal of the day. Turns out Kashmiris don't do breakfast. They chew on some soft, freshly baked Kashmiri roti/bread, dipped in pink-coloured salty tea.

The bread was a carb-lover's dream, but for the girl who eats discarded pizza crusts? Man, oh man. Mmm, mmm, mmm, mmm and in case you didn't hear it, MMM! Skipped the salty tea though. I got myself a cup of strong, milky tea and a doughnut-type pastry for breakfast.

If all this is getting a little too milk-and-cookies for you, I'll skip on ahead to the main dishes. The Kashmiri Wazawan. A host of mutton-based dishes that'll bundle you up against the cold from inside. And make you look like a baby walrus, but why fret over occupational hazards, no?

Gustaba. Balls made of mutton and fat, poached in a Kashmiri-chilli based gravy.

And that's mutton in Yakhni gravy; a lip-smacking tangy, yoghurt-based gravy that tastes out of the world.
I'd have preferred it without the huge portions of meat.

Speaking of meat that I do like: Seekh kebabs!

And freshly-grilled meat served on fluffy white chapatis.

You have a selection of chutneys I'd be happy to feast on and call it a night. Pickles, yogurt chutney, spicky, creamy concoctions I had a couple of plates full of.

My favourite one of the lot is the chutney picturised above. A mix of yoghurt, walnuts, mint and a tiny smattering of chilli. Reminds me of my beloved Tzatziki. Highly doubt the twain have ever met, though.

And since it got to be too much of a good thing, on one random night, we went and paid buckets for home-style  food. Idli dosa!

The golden triangle you've just seen is a dosa stuffed with a block of crumbled, chilli'd up paneer. Served with chutney and... a gravy. I asked them what the gravy was. They told me, all earnestly, that is was sambar. I rolled around the floor in splits. Whatever that was, it wasn't sambar. Pretty decent tasting, though. Reminds me of daal accompanying biryani... you can't put idli together with it!

That's what I thought. Only idiots hold on to a prototype/stereotype, I've learnt. The people, the place, the food... it's shattered all the bad stereotypes and fortified belief in the good ones. I got schooled, and I got schooled good.

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