What’s cooking: Search for ‘soulful food’ calling chefs to Kashmir

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Taking authentic Kashmir cuisine to the outside world has been a dream project for locals and it’s slowly turning into reality. 

Strolling on the bustling streets of Goni Khan Bazar in Srinagar, Vanshika Bhatia can’t stop smiling. This happy-go-lucky chef from north India loves exploring new places, ingredients and techniques. She stops by spice stores, taking stock of Kashmir’s indigenous products. 

Vanshika wants to introduce the local ingredients at her café outside the valley. The idea behind this exploration is to promote healthy food culture. 

“The aim is to connect people through food,” Vanshika, a chef-partner at Gurugram’s ingredient-first vegetarian café OMO, says. “I want to feed the soul than the body.”

The cheerful chef arrived in the valley with her class exploring the local farms and homesteads. Apart from visiting many iconic spice stores and streets of Srinagar, the cooks stopped by a farmhouse along the famous Manasbal Lake in Ganderbal district. 

Run by a young Kashmiri woman, the organic farm is excelling in agriculture and dairy products. The agripreneur is expert in kalari, mozzarella and ver. The homesteader also makes the famous Kashmir vegetable pickle and jams. All her ingredients are sourced from her farm only. 

The team relished the taste of kalari and ver and hoped to introduce the same at their own eateries.

The valley has a rich culinary history owing its Central Asian cuisine influence. Exploring the same distinct taste, the chefs embarked on a journey to forage and cook some local dishes.

After the lake farmhouse, the team visited Baagmanzuk—a farm based out of Pulwama. It’s run by a scribe turned homesteader. 

Spread over three hectares of land, the farm grows all sorts of seasonal fruits and veggies. It’s even experimenting with stuff that can grow in temperate zones like ginger, turmeric, peanuts, rosemary, thyme, oregano, hazelnuts and avocado. The farm owner has been successfully growing Kiwis and experimenting with olive trees. 

At the farm, the team stayed for a night and cooked their own food. They started off with making the traditional kehwa. And by the time it got ready, they were all geared up to collect dandelion leaves cooked for dinner. The team also learned to cook quince apple, wild rhubarb –phamb haakh, dried bottle gourd and rajma.

All these dishes are part of the daily household routine. But cooking techniques are always influenced by a regional weather and cultural heritage. Kashmiri cooking involves a lot of frying, spices and slow cook techniques. 

Other things on the list to learn were walnut and pumpkin chutney and the traditional dish of fish-green collard and Lotus stem, cooked together on low heat.

The team cleaned shallots, garlic, quince and dandelions while sipping kehwa. The host chef for the day was assisted by Vanshika cooking all the stuff in traditional Kashmiri way. 

The chefs explored the farm and taste-testing every edible thing around, from fresh chili to wet walnuts. 

Taking authentic Kashmir cuisine to the outside world has been a dream project for locals and it’s slowly turning into reality. 

There is a lot of difference between ordering something at a fancy restaurant and foraging and cooking something. The whole process is fulfilling and what’s more satisfying is that people now know what they’re eating, how it has been grown and how it has been cooked.

The market is filled with genetically-modified eatables and in these times, a place like OMO is serving healthy food in a city that has no time to forage. At the same time, the cafe is supporting the local farmers and bringing to table the food that is truly healthy and soulful. 

Just like other visiting chefs, Vanshika Bhatia left the valley with a smile and a stock of local ingredients. Her purpose of hunting the soulful recipe stands fulfilled today, so does Kashmir’s long overdue of faring on the culinary map.

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