As a part of the ‘Kitchens of India’ theme, the Cubbon Pavilion at the ITC Gardenia is featuring a menu that brings food connoisseurs the flavours from the kitchens of Kashmiri Pandits. As far as Kashmiri food goes, I’ve only had the Wazwan-style of cooking; I was quite eager to taste what new flavours and experience the Kashmiri Pandit cuisine was going to offer.
The festival, titled Poush - The Essence of Kashmiri Pandit Cuisine, kicked off at a gala dinner accompanied by music from the valley. A few cocktails and starters down, everyone got into the spirit of the evening with most of the crowd singing and dancing along to Kashmiri folk songs. Without saying, there was no dancing from me. I reserve that splendid display only for the baarat at weddings. Without digressing further, I’ll stick to writing about the food. I just want to point out that the pictures of the food were not taken by me and were provided by the hotel's photographer. I wasn't able to take any owing to technical difficulties.
Driving the food festival is Chef Suman Kaul. I was able to spend some time with her to understand what to expect from the evening and a lot more about how the cooking style of the Pandits is different from the more familiar Wazwan-style. It turns out that the Kasmiri Pandits community are among a handful of Pandits in the sub-continent who eat meat as a part of their tradition. No beef though. (I’m very tempted to write a nasty quip on some states banning beef, but…). A big difference between the Wazwan-style of cooking is their emphasis on lamb as opposed to goat. The use of onion and garlic is almost non-existent in this style of cooking.
After downing a few very tasty Whiskey Sours, we kicked off the main course. Naturally, I gravitated to the non-vegetarian section first. I kicked off with a helping of Moush, a spicy minced lamb dumpling with some rice. It was love at first bite. With the bitter-citrus taste of the Whiskey Sour still hanging around my taste buds, the spiciness of the lamb worked some absolute magic. More than the gravy the lamb was cooked in, the actual minced dumpling had some spectacular flavour of spice and saffron coming through. Another blogger and I were commenting that we should have had this dish along with our drinks. I showed appreciation for the dish in my own caveman-style, with a lot of grunting as I chewed down every morsel and went back for a second helping.
Next up was the Naine Yekhenie – lamb cooked in a yogurt gravy with a mild hint of saffron. Kudos to the chef on the tenderness of the lamb. I initially did not read what the dish was because the chunks of meat looked fabulous and called out to me. As I ate away, looking at how easy the meat came off the bone and the lovely pink colour of the meat, I complimented the chef on the excellent chicken. This was a big faux pas. Chef Suman was polite enough to inform me that most Kashmiri Pandits consider eating chicken to be an insult of sorts. Lesson learnt.
To give my tummy a break from all the meat, I tried some of the veg spread. I sampled the Chamman Qaliya – a soft paneer cooked in a Kashmiri-style yellow gravy and the Kashmiri Dum Aloo. The flavours were not particularly mind-blowing to make me want to go back for a second helping. However, the Nadur Yakhne - lotus stem with Yoghurt was a very interesting dish. I’ve always had lotus stems in a pan-Asian style and this was my first time in an Indian style. The stem was soft with a light crunch and a hint of cardamom coming through with the gravy. While I was not completely sold on the dish, it did enough to make me go back for a second helping.
I went back to the non-vegetarian section and helped myself to some Naine Roghunjosh - lamb cooked in a Kashmiri-style hot gravy and Mooje Gaade – fish cooked in raddish. The former had a more familiar taste similar to what I’ve had before with the Wazwan style. The fish was cooked well and flaked perfectly but I did not relish the raddish gravy, that’s mostly thanks to my irrational dislike to raddish as a vegetable. I did want to try out the lamb ribs, but the tray was clean. I’d normally be kicking myself for not trying out the entire non-veg spread first, but I just drowned my sorrows in another helping of Moush and Naine Yekhenie.
I left just enough space to sample the dessert. The Shuftha, a dish made from assorted dry fruits and saffron hit all the right spots and was the best among the desserts in my opinion. Before I hit the road, I grabbed myself a large mug of Kahwah which helped cleanse the palate after an evening of ‘more than usual’ eating.
The stars of the spread that evening for me were the Moush and Naine Yekhenie. The Poush festival is on till the 16th, so use your Independence Day time-off to go and sample some of the fabulous flavours of Kashmiri Pandit cusine.