Mouth-watering Kashmiri delicacy

Mouth-watering Kashmiri delicacy

The high-calorie mutton halwa requires long hours of preparation

Mouth-watering Kashmiri delicacy
As snow has draped the lofty mountains of the Kashmir Valley causing a dip in the mercury, Harissa, the mouth-watering mutton delicacy, is in huge demand these days. Harissa, a delicacy of Kashmir made only in winter, tempts people living here so much that whenever they choose to relish special dish,  it first comes to their mind.

Surviving the onslaught of junk food, old city of Srinagar is dotted with many Harissa shops but famous among them are mostly located in Aali Kadal and adjoining areas. Braving bone-chilling cold, people in small groups jostle through dense fog in the wee hours and swarm around these unique shops. Forgetting their worldly problems for some moments, they sit around a steaming earthen pot warmed by firewood in the shop and keenly watch every movement of a man using a big wooden spoon called  “dhagun” in local parlance.

Though the high-calorie delicacy requires long hours of preparation and is costly, people still prefer it due to its unique taste. If you have eaten Harissa once, you simply cannot ignore it, goes the old saying in Kashmir. Some call Harissa mutton halwa, as it is made of mutton with addition of rice or wheat as well as spices.

The concoction is heated and constantly stirred for hours together until it becomes mushy and pasty. Onions fried in oil or ghee till they become golden brown, are poured onto it and when served at the café or packed for home delivery, Kashmiri raita or kebabs are also added.
Mohammad Shafi, 60, who owns one of the oldest Harissa shops in Srinagar is over-busy these days. “We start making Harissa after first snowfall. Usually Harrisa season begins from November but it’s at peak in December and January,” Shafi told Deccan Herald as he served Harissa to his customers from a big earthen pot known locally as “mat”, which is kept warm by firewood beneath it.

As he adds cooking oil to the delicacy, a large number of people, including aged men, throng the shop. His son warms the traditional Kashmiri bread known as “chout” and sets plates as the customers wait. A kg of quality Harissa costs between Rs 900 and Rs 1,000, a plateful Rs 80-100.

“On an average I sell 40 kg in a day during peak winter as there is a huge demand for it. Some people pack and take it to home to eat with their families. I’ve kept food-grade airtight containers for them,” Shafi said. Some customers send Harissa to different parts of the country like Delhi and Mumbai for their relatives or officials. “But Harissa’s shelf life is short and has to be consumed in three days,” he said. “It tastes best when it’s fresh,” he adds.

Harissa making is an arduous task rather an art which one learns by constant practice. “I learnt it as a child by watching my late father. Our family is in this trade for over 100 years. People can make it at home, but they should use earthen pots instead of copper utensils to make it tastier,” Shafi said.

For the past some years, some affluent Kashmiri families have started the practice of sending large quantities of Harissa to the families of their newly-wed daughters. “Normally, a well-to-do father sends five to seven kg of Harrisa to his daughter’s new home. We dress such gifts with kebabs to make the dish more attractive,” Shafi said.

According to him, no one knows the “real way” to prepare the dish except for a few families from the old city. After my father’s death, I decided to carry the business forward as it is a tradition of Kashmir,” he says while emphasising how important it is to retain a connection to one’s roots and to keep the traditions alive.

Muzaffar Ahmad Shah, a businessman who had come from uptown to downtown to purchase two kg of Harrisa for his family, said: “When I crave for Harissa are the only days when I wake up in the wee hours in winter.”

“I have become a Harissa addict by relishing it for past 24 years. It (Harissa) is delicious and I relish it on every weekend during winters with my family. As Harissa shops open in the wee hours, one has to reach early in the morning in biting cold,” Shah said.

Some historians attribute Harissa’s origin in Kashmir to Central Asia, which influenced the art, custom, rituals, belief and the food culture of the Kashmiris. And thus they got the blessing in the form of a flavoursome delight, now known as Harissa.

According to reputable historian of Kashmir Fida Hasnain, Mirza Hyder Duglat of Yarkand brought Harissa making  to Kashmir during Chak period in 1540.

Zareef Ahmad Zareef, a Kashmiri poet and considered an authority on Kashmir’s cultural history, traced the roots of Harissa to the Mughal period. “During Afghan rule Harissa was formally introduced in its present form in the Kashmir Valley. At that time the economic condition of Kashmiris was not good and they could not afford to relish Harissa. Instead, they would boil turnips as they were cheap alternative to Harissa. However, Mughals used to boil sheep feet known as Pacha to make a kind of Harissa,” he said.

Known for his satirical poetry, Zarief minces no words to say that “Harissa was misused extensively as a means of corruption in Kashmir. Some people used to send Harissa to government officials and ministers for favours,” he said. “But Harissa has become a part and parcel of our culture now. It is also sent to in-laws after engagements and marriages as a token of love. Now Kashmiri Harissa is famous world over.”

Medicos say that Harissa is a good source of protein for humans. “Harissa has muscle and tissue building protein. It should be consumed in the proportion of one gram of per kg of body weight,” according to  doctors.  However, overeating Harissa can be counterproductive to health and lead to significant weight gain, doctors say.

A story still told to children by parents is about an Afghan governor of Kashmir in the past who liked the dish so much that he did not know where to stop. He simply over-ate himself to death.

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