The Kashmiri Chef Foraging on Precarious Soil

For Prateek Sadhu, gathering native ingredients in the conflict zone where he grew up is the only way of asserting Kashmir’s tenuous place in the world.

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By Ligaya Mishan

Photographs by Anu Kumar

THE BEARS WERE dark shapes among the furrowed oaks in Dachigam National Park, a maharajah’s private hunting preserve turned wilderness sanctuary more than 5,000 feet above sea level outside of Srinagar, Kashmir. It was the fall of 2018. I had landed in Srinagar that afternoon and now stood in deep woods alongside the Kashmiri chef Prateek Sadhu, who had come to forage sorrel, collards and dandelion greens for his Mumbai restaurant, Masque. Officially, the sanctuary — home to snow leopards and what may be the last couple of hundred hanguls (Kashmir stags) in the world — is closed when night falls. But over two years of foraging, Sadhu had earned the respect of the rangers, and one of them had spotted the bears and led us toward them for a closer look, warning us to stay together. When a twig cracked underfoot, he put a finger to his lips. Later, I would learn that the Himalayan black bear is among the most savage of its genus, prone to unprovoked attacks and fond of grasping humans by the head. But for now, we watched them silently in the weak rain, more curious than afraid, believing ourselves hidden and safe.

And we were. The bears, a mother and two cubs, slunk off, and we headed back to the dirt road and the open jeep, rocking and rattling until we reached higher ground. Now the valley was spread before us, green on green without any marks of habitation, mountains like bare knuckles lining up behind and long wet grasses arcing in waves at our feet. Kneeling among them, Sadhu gently uprooted dandelion stalks with spiky-edged leaves. Known locally as haandh, they were young and tender and, when raw, tasted like spring water tipped from a wooden ladle, with a faintly bitter aftereffect. At Masque, they would be anointed with mustard oil and veri masala, a blend of fervent Kashmiri chiles and spices bought in hard red cakes from a shop in Shehr-e-Khaas, Srinagar’s old city, then pulverized, lanced with lime and finally brushed over fish or lamb, less sauce than veil. Before all this, the greens would have to be blanched — four times — so that they bore no memory of bitterness.

The chef as forager has been a romantic, even heroic, figure for nearly two decades, since the ascendance of its modern archetype, René Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen. Sadhu interned at Noma for a month when he was 24, in the fall of 2010, the year the restaurant topped the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. He saw how Redzepi had put Nordic ingredients and cuisine on the map — and resolved to do the same for his native Kashmir. But Sadhu has a greater burden: His territory is uncertain. Where Redzepi’s Denmark is consistently ranked as one of the most harmonious and contented countries on earth, Kashmir is a conflict zone, a flash point between two nuclear powers, India and Pakistan. Hundreds of thousands of troops are massed on either side of the Line of Control, a de facto border that isn’t legally recognized, and regularly trade fire. The countries have fought three outright wars over the region; tens of thousands of lives have been lost.

On our way back down to Srinagar (the area’s largest city, with a population of 1.2 million), we stopped by a stand of walnut trees, giants that can scale 75 feet. In India, these trees grow only in the northernmost states touching the Himalayas, the majority of them in the Kashmir Valley, which supplies most of the country’s walnuts. Here, the young, unripe nut is especially prized. Plucked off the tree, it looks like a lime; the shell, still soft, is hidden inside a fleshy green rind, which oozes, stains and burns the hands. The kernels within, clinging to each other like lobes of brain, are delicate and sour. As I ate them, one after the other, Sadhu said, “Now you are really in Kashmir.”

IN AUGUST OF 2019, less than a year after Sadhu gathered that bouquet of dandelion greens in Dachigam, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, announced the repeal of Jammu and Kashmir’s semiautonomous status, which had been enshrined in the Indian Constitution, and its statehood, breaking it into two union territories — Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh — under direct federal administration. The Indian government deployed security forces to quell protests, suspended communications networks in the region and put Srinagar on lockdown. Nevertheless, Sadhu found ways to get in touch with his parents there and, by the end of the month, he had managed to return to check on them and to support local farmers by buying quince. “They’re living a normal life,” he insisted, even as media outlets outside of India reported a violent crackdown, with military patrols in the streets and thousands of arrests.

By that time, I had written a version of this story about foraging with Sadhu, but it had no place amid more urgent news from Kashmir. I waited to see if the situation would improve, and then the pandemic hit and the suffering in Kashmir grew worse, with increased isolation and an economy teetering on collapse. Sadhu was unable to travel to the region for a year. Yet he remained hopeful and determined to change perceptions of Kashmir as a place of only turmoil and struggle. Food was part of the Kashmiri story and, he argued, essential to it — to keeping the spirit of the culture alive.

Historically, the name Kashmir referred only to the Kashmir Valley, bounded to the south by the Pir Panjal range, snowy hulks that climb over 13,000 feet, and to the north by the Great Himalayas, rising over 20,000 feet, with Srinagar and the liquid-mirror expanse of Dal Lake cupped between them. In his 12th-century chronicle “Rajatarangini,” the local poet-historian Kalhana writes, “Kashmir is studded with high cliffs and cannot be conquered even by the strength of a good army; and the people are afraid of nothing but of the future world.” To the Mughals, who commandeered the land four centuries later, Kashmir became a synonym for paradise, its splendor a testament to the presence of a divine will on earth, enshrined in verse and myth. (In one popular tale, the dying 17th-century emperor Jahangir was asked if he had a last wish; he answered, “Only Kashmir.”)

This increasingly abstracted idea of Kashmir has “persisted in the South Asian imagination, even [through] a history of oppressive rulers and botched politics,” Sunil Sharma, a professor of Persianate and comparative literature at Boston University, has written. One conqueror wrested it from another: After the Mughals came the Afghans, the Sikhs and finally the British, who in 1846, perhaps not quite understanding the fuss, sold it off for the bargain price of 7.5 million nanakshahi rupees — the equivalent of roughly three English shillings per citizen — to Gulab Singh, the Hindu maharajah with an iron grip over neighboring Jammu in the south.

By the time of independence from Britain in 1947, Singh’s Dogra dynasty had fully taken possession of Ladakh to the east and the frontier districts to the north (today Gilgit-Baltistan). But with independence fell the shadow of partition, as the subcontinent was divided into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan; within three months, the two new countries were at war over Kashmir, whose population is predominantly Muslim. Two more wars, in 1965 and 1971, and countless skirmishes followed. As it stands today, Pakistan controls Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir — literally “Free Kashmir” — while India maintains sovereignty over Ladakh, whose eastern border is a source of dispute with neighboring China, and Jammu and Kashmir, which, since the loss of constitutionally protected status, has seen a rise in both government detentions of civilians and targeted killings by militants.

Sadhu was born in 1986 in Baramulla, an hour northwest of Srinagar. His family are Kashmiri Pandits, Hindu Brahmins whose roots in the valley go back centuries and who share the same ancestry as their Muslim neighbors. The Sadhus had a second home in Srinagar and shuttled between them with ease until late 1989, when Muslim separatists — whom the Indian government believed had been armed and trained by Pakistan — launched a campaign of intimidation and terror, attacking and killing Pandits throughout the valley. In 1990, the family fled Srinagar, joining an exodus of an estimated 400,000 Pandits, nearly the entire Hindu population of the region. “We had to leave in a small truck at midnight,” Sadhu recalled. They wound up in crowded refugee camps in Jammu, where Hindus are the majority.

Looking back on his family’s escape, Sadhu said, “Because I was young, I couldn’t understand the gravity of the situation.” They settled for a while in New Delhi, where Sadhu’s mother cooked Kashmiri food every day, even though it was difficult to find the right ingredients. Then his father, an engineer employed by the government, was posted to Jammu and brought the family with him. For the next decade he worked in designated safe zones around the region and, in 2002, the family was able to move back to Srinagar.

“I was born of resilience,” Sadhu told me. “We had to start our lives all over again. But I’m still a Kashmiri.”

MASQUE OPENED IN the fall of 2016 in Mumbai’s former Laxmi Woollen Mills industrial compound, recently refurbished and suddenly fashionable, although at night the narrow lanes relapsed into desolation. Masque’s mission, as Sadhu and the restaurant’s Mumbai-born director, Aditi Dugar, saw it, was to bring the unknown bounty of India to the fore, using exclusively indigenous, seasonal ingredients — including produce from a small farm in Pune, to the southeast — with an eye toward zero-waste sustainability and forward-thinking culinary techniques. Diners were offered a tasting menu, at the start ranging from 2,200 to 4,500 rupees (about $33 to $67 at the time) and currently 10 courses for 4,150 rupees (about $52).

In a global context, this was hardly radical. Sadhu graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., in 2010 and did stints at New York’s Le Bernardin and the French Laundry, in California’s Napa Valley, along with Noma, before returning to India to cook at Le Cirque in Bangalore. He felt solidarity with farm-to-table movements around the world, but that vision proved to be a harder sell in India, even in Mumbai. Only in the past 13 years, since the chef Manish Mehrotra started revamping familiar dishes at his restaurant Indian Accent in New Delhi, has the country tentatively embraced the idea of chef as auteur. Before that, chefs “didn’t have much power,” the Mumbai-based food writer Vikram Doctor explained: High-end restaurants were mostly confined to hotels, and Indian diners shied from spending a lot of money on food, particularly their own cuisine. Foraging was an odd concept to the urbanites who were Masque’s natural constituency and who, according to Doctor, tended to view ingredients and dishes from far corners of India skeptically, as “too obscure, weirdly traditional or even food for poor people.”

Nevertheless, from the beginning, Sadhu’s dishes were almost universally lauded as imaginative and scrupulously precise, like a voluptuous drape of corn mousse over crisped kernels of corn, evoking bhutta, the roasted cobs sold on the streets during monsoon season. But he sensed that something was missing: the shimmering thread that might lead a diner from one feat of culinary virtuosity to the next. As he traveled the country in the first months after the restaurant’s opening, searching for ingredients, he found himself drawn back to Kashmir. He was stunned by the beauty he remembered from his displaced childhood, and by how little outsiders knew of the valley’s natural abundance. “As a Kashmiri, even I didn’t know we had so much,” he said.

Beyond the Kashmiri diaspora, the food of the valley isn’t widely available in India, partly because of the difficulty of obtaining ingredients. Nor is it that known, aside from the formal 36-course wedding wazwan, an epic feast of meat upon meat upon meat. “In the 1970s, restaurants used to serve steamed rice with fresh and canned fruit and call it ‘Kashmiri,’” the New Delhi-based food writer Marryam H Reshii, whose husband is a Kashmiri Muslim, said. Only recently have Indian diners begun to take interest in the country’s many microcuisines.

In Kashmiri food, the hierarchy of spices is distinct, leading with saunf (fennel seeds crushed into powder), sonth (pulverized dried ginger), saffron — the valley grows some of the world’s most coveted varieties — and veri masala, which unites native red chiles with fenugreek, coriander and cloves, bound together by mustard oil. Unlike elsewhere in India, the cuisine is dominated by meat, above all lamb, and almost every part of the animal is used, from the fatty tail simmered in milk for the curry called aab gosht to hunks carved from the leg and hand-pounded with lamb fat into a smooth paste — at Masque, Sadhu attained the same texture via Pacojet (a professional puréeing machine) — to be shaped into the fist-size meatballs known as goshtaba.

To Sadhu, what sets Kashmiri cuisine apart is its adaptation to four true seasons. Winter is a force here, not the gentle respite from heat as much of India knows it, and in the past, when snows regularly shut down the main highway and cut off the valley from supplies, every edible item had to be preserved to last until spring. Kohlrabi bulbs and leaves, tomatoes, turnips, morels, apples and water chestnuts — plucked from marshes by foragers wearing wooden slippers as long as skis — are all strung in garlands from windows and left to dry in the sun, while trout are laid on dry grass set aflame, engulfing them with smoke.

With the melting of snow comes a return to freshness and immediacy. Sadhu remembered his mother heading to the hills to pick haakh (collards), which she cooked daily. Bread is meant to be eaten within minutes of its making — never at a meal, when rice is preferred, but in the morning or evening with tea. Meat, too, is ideally consumed immediately: A true wazwan is almost impossible to stage anywhere but the valley, first because it must be made by wazas, male descendants of the Central Asian cooks who accompanied the conqueror Timur to India in the 14th century, and second because the lamb must be slaughtered and butchered within an hour of the feast, lest the flesh stiffen.

This is the story of Kashmir that Sadhu wants to tell: of the lotuses that grow in Dal Lake, uprooted by boatmen and sold on shore, their bulbs like the mouths of old telephones, each perforation disclosing a translucent, nutty seed; of sea buckthorn berries, whose sour pop he first discovered in Denmark, only to learn that they are native to Ladakh, where he trekked to harvest the fruit in summer, camping out in a tent and wearing military-issue gloves to evade thorns; and of the fervid red hue — from crushed chiles or ruffly cockscomb flowers — of rogan josh, one of the great Kashmiri dishes, lamb braised and entered into eternity.

FORAGING IS PRIMAL: For the vast majority of human life, some 200,000 years, we were hunter-gatherers, although we date the beginning of civilization to around 10,000 years ago, when we started to abandon the uncertain yields of the wilderness and claim the land as our own, to till and mold to our will. In developing countries and communities that lack ready access to modern conveniences, foraging is still basic practice, essential to survival, particularly in mountainous, woodsy regions whose geography resists cultivation. It may seem something of a contradiction, then, that ingredients taken from the wild — once treasured in part because they are, in multiple senses of the word, free — have become luxuries whose presence gilds a dish so it might command a higher price.

To those who forage seriously, however, it’s not an elitist hobby but a kind of rescue operation, intended to salvage neglected or forgotten ingredients and with them make food that represents and honors both a place and the people who call it home. For Sadhu, it goes even further: Foraging — which his mother did, and which remains part of life in Kashmir — is one step in a larger project of excavating memory; of coming to terms with a landscape lost and found again; and of making peace, however unsteady, on the plate. Indeed, he is as much a forager in the streets as in the forests, sifting through burlap bags of spices in Shehr-e-Khaas and paying his respects to the apothecary that supplies all the mosques with rose water (“the purest,” he said).

In this ancient quarter, once the heart of Srinagar, the husks of burned houses — the property of Pandits gone into exile — still stand alongside their whole, untouched Muslim neighbors’. The Sadhus’ house had been torched, too, when they’d left. In the fall of 2018, I walked with Sadhu here and, the next morning, read in the newspaper that there had been “clashes” in the neighborhood. Sadhu had hoped to take me to a village outside Srinagar to visit a man who makes kalari, a mozzarella-like cheese seared in a pan. But he shook his head. “There was a disturbance,” he said.

When I flew out of Srinagar, I had to pass through five checkpoints and four searches (in curtained areas set aside for women) before I could board the plane, including one final rummage through my handbag and a sweep of the body wand in the gangway. By the end of the month, two Muslim militants and a civilian were dead, and the government had suspended mobile internet services in the city. Later, those were restored, then suspended and restored, a cycle that would recur in the ensuing months and years. None of this was new to Kashmir; it was merely continuing.

IN MARCH OF this year, Masque was named the best restaurant in India on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for Asia. The same month, Sadhu left his post in the kitchen. He had spent the pandemic scrambling for ways to keep paying his employees when the dining room was closed for months, shifting to food delivery and cooking burgers and Korean barbecue, far from his original mission. Now he wanted to take time to travel around India, “to learn more about my country,” he said, as research for a restaurant he hopes to open next fall. “At this point in my life, I’m digging deeper.” Abroad, he has become recognized as an ambassador for India’s bounty of ingredients. But the story of Kashmir — the story of where he comes from — remains one he has not yet had a chance to fully tell.

Here is just one piece of it: a memory from an evening at Masque when the restaurant was still young. The dining room soared upward, resolutely modern, at once opulent and stark, with an installation of skeletal steel towers by the artist Rathin Barman and lighting that made me feel like I was sitting inside a bronze cloud. The first evening reservations were for 7:30 — to dine out any earlier in Mumbai is sacrilege — and parties were staggered, as a meal could last three hours, which meant tables were rarely turned. Each dinner began with a visit to the kitchen, a laboratory-bright box where cooks stood in denim aprons at long, startlingly pristine counters, working in near silence.

On this night, every ingredient in the initial course came from Ladakh: apricots, their flesh turned to leather and their seeds slivered like almonds; yak cheese whipped into cream; pine needles dehydrated and strewn like salt; even the stones that the dainty amuse-bouches were assembled upon. In one dish that followed, sea buckthorn berries had been broken down into a cool soup in which nasturtium leaves floated like lily pads. Tzir czot, airy little rice pancakes named after the sound of the batter sizzling in the pan, were listed on the menu as a wrapping for duck confit — but instead, I was served rogan josh: Just for me, Sadhu had decided to make a sort of impromptu miniature wazwan. So while my vegetarian companions contented themselves with rajma (cooked-down kidney beans), I had, all to myself, little pots of lamb chest, cut from between the ribs and tasking the jaw just a little before surrender, and fried lamb testicles, creamy within.

I wasn’t sure at first how these rich dishes matched the rest of the tasting menu’s elegantly diminutive bites, which seemed designed to tease out a feeling rather than merely sate. Then came katlam, a flaking flatbread ready to shed tears of butter, and a bowl of chicken broth for dipping that was stained with curry leaf oil. When I tasted it, there was a low, sour throb announcing the presence of green walnuts. I recalled their trees, and the dusky rain and the family of bears. Once the bread was gone, I took a spoon to the broth, then finally lifted the bowl straight to my lips. Now you are in Kashmir.

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