Plateful of Succour

  • Shalaka Shinde
  • Publish Date: Jan 25 2017 8:23PM
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  • Updated Date: Jan 25 2017 8:23PM
Plateful of Succour

                                                          Photo: Aman Farooq/ Kashmir Ink

Ashraf Wani, a historian and Dean of Academics at Kashmir University, claims it has Persian origins; ‘harissa’, in fact, is a Persian word. The dish finds mention in Kitab-ul-Tabikh, or the Book of Recipes, a 10th century work on the delicacies prepared in the royal kitchens of the Middle East.

 
 

Few comforts relieve the bitter cold of Chilaai Kalan, the severest period of the Kashmiri winter, like a steaming plate of harissa. For the most authentic plate, though, you must head to downtown Srinagar. Here, come winter, the rundown streets are filled with the aroma of mutton and spices as chefs, many of whom come from long lines of harissa cooks, start the arduous preparation of the complex dish.

Alai Kadal attracts people from all over Srinagar, and beyond, to taste the harissa at Butt Zaafrani’s. The place is run by Basheer Ahmed and his sons Nasir and Aijaz. Saffron traders for the rest of the year, they become harissa makers in winter; Basheer is following this annual routine for over 50 years now. His legacy will be carried on by Aijaz; Nasir has a day job as a school teacher.

At Butt Zaafrani’s, one serve of harissa, along with a piece of the locally made round-bread called girda, costs Rs 200. Many customers though get their own bread or buy bigger servings to take home, usually for breakfast.

To prepare the dish, Basheer’s shop has three huge earthen pots hidden under its floor, which is built on an elevated platform to form a cavity that serves as an oven. This arrangement turns the shop into a makeshift hamam. But while hamam, and kaangdi, provide warmth from outside, harissa warms the body from within.

Harissa is essentially a thick paste of mutton, rice and herbs served with residual pieces of mutton and garnished with long-cut golden-fried onion. The delicacy has a shelf life of 10 days, claims a proud Aijaz when asked about the packaging. The dish is packed in tin cans for short journeys, paper boxes for takeaway, and there’s cane packaging for longer journeys, he adds. At this establishment, though, one can see people walk out with white plastic boxes that have ‘Butt Zaafrani’ written in red on them.

From behind a pile of these custom-sized boxes, Aijaz hands out business cards of the eatery. In these changing times, garnishing and packaging are crucial to the business, he says. Which makes one wonder about the origins of this delicacy.

Ashraf Wani, a historian and Dean of Academics at Kashmir University, claims it has Persian origins; ‘harissa’, in fact, is a Persian word. The dish finds mention in Kitab-ul-Tabikh, or the Book of Recipes, a 10th century work on the delicacies prepared in the royal kitchens of the Middle East.

Although the origin of the book is not clear, it’s believed to be the work of an Arab scribe from Syria or Baghdad. In this book, however, the harissa recipe includes wheat instead of rice. Harissa was a staple dish in medieval Persia, and still has a prized position in the iftar menu in parts of the Middle East. Elsewhere, harissa has over time morphed into haleem, a delicacy widely found, for instance, on the streets of Hyderabad and Delhi during Ramzan.

Kashmiris have served up their own version of harissa as well. Though the basic ingredients such as mutton and rice remain the same, every cook adds his or her own combination of herbs to the mixture. Haseena Nazir, a school teacher, happily reveals her recipe and way of cooking harissa, unlike Aijaz, who refuses to part with the complete recipe.

“I use leg pieces as the meat separates from the bone easily and does not leave the putrid smell that meat from other parts leaves after being boiled. The meat has to be boiled and cooked until it separates from the bone by itself. That’s when it is ready to be turned into harissa. I add spices along with salt, garlic and rice and put it through the grinder,” Haseena explains.

Aijaz and his father, on the other hand, start cooking by afternoon and use a wooden rod to grind the mixture to perfection before it is ready to be served the next morning at 5 am. Harissa is usually had only during winter, and for breakfast. As Basheer puts it, “No one has tried to change this tradition. We like it that way.” Indeed.