…All for Some Hearty Harissa!
Notwithstanding its foreign origins, Harissa – a winter delicacy –has an enviable place in Kashmir’s gastronomic heritage.
Winter in the Valley of Kashmir instantly conjures up images of a snow-caked landscape, steaming cups of kehwa, andthe ubiquitous kangri pot. But dig deeper, and you will discover Harissa, a winter specialty made of mutton, rice, and assorted spices traditionally eaten for breakfast in Kashmir between the months of November and March. Given its historical origins and hallowed place in the region’s culinary tapestry, Harissa– for many Kashmiris – isn’t just a delicacy, but a tradition that is zealously guarded and dutifully perpetuated.
Flavour of the Season
“Harissa has been part of Kashmir’s culture for many centuries, its recipe having remained largely unchanged for at least 200 years”saidZahoor Ahmed Bhat, owner of a 175-year-old Harissa shop in the AaliKadalneighbourhood of Shehr-e-Khaas or Downtown Srinagar. The art of making Harissahas been passed down the generations with Bhat having learnt itfrom his octogenarian father Ghulam Muhammad Bhat, and Bhat currently preparing his 16-year-old son for the ancestral trade. Since Harissa is a seasonal delicacy, the Bhatsalso own a grocery and dry fruit store that becomes their primary source of livelihood during the summer months.
One of the oldest family-run places selling Harissa, Bhat claims his shop stands exactly at the same spot where it did more than 170 years ago. Set up by an ancestor, the shopdoes not have a name, running instead on a formidable reputation that draws customers from all over Kashmir, and indeed – as Bhatsays – the world itself.
(Above): Fried Kashmiri shallots are a primary ingredient used in Harissa. Photo by NandiniSen
A bit like its Hyderabadi cousin Haleem, Harissa is a rice and meat porridge prepared using mutton (preferably goat meat), Kashmiri thick-grain rice, fennel seeds, green cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, garlic, Praan(Kashmiri shallots), salt, ghee, and mustard oil. Notwithstanding the rather modest list of ingredients, Harissacalls for a painstaking12-hour-preparation which begins in the afternoon and ends before the crack of dawn. Rice and chunks of mutton are cooked in an earthen pot with all the condiments. The concoction is left to simmer on wood fire overnight,resulting in the meat acquiring incredible flavour and tenderness. The bones are removed at about 3 a.m., a couple of hours before the shop opens. The dish is finally topped with a tempering of smoked mustard oil, and served alongside tsot or girda, a type of Kashmiri bread.
(Above): Zahoor Ahmed Bhatt begins preparing the dish in the afternoon. It is slow-cooked on wood fire for nearly 12 hours.Photo by NandiniSen
The Birth of a Culinary Gem
The origins of Kashmiri Harissa are shrouded in uncertainty. Interestingly, it has nothing to do with its namesake Harissa, a hot chilli pepper paste used as a condiment in North African cooking. It is instead closely related to the Arabian Hareeswhich finds a mention in the 10th-century cookbook Kitab Al Tabikhby IbnSayyar al-Warraq. A savoury porridge made using wheat and meat, Harees is a popular dish in the Middle-East served during the holy month of Ramadan, as well as at festivals and weddings.
According to a local legend – recounted by Zahoor Ahmed Bhat– the dish was brought to Kashmir from Iran by the Persian Sufi Shāh-e-Hamadānwho came to the Valley with his disciples in the 14th century. But since Kashmir was ruled by various foreign dynasties including the Mughals and Afghans, the veracity of the story is disputed.
Whatever its origins, Harissa today has acquired something of the status of a culinary legend that has managed to hold its own in an evolving food market. Although well-known restaurants such as Mughal Darbar and Chai Jaai also feature this meaty delicacy on their menus during winter months, the nondescript family-run shops in the Downtown neighbourhoods of AaliKadal, FatehKadal, and SarafKadalare widely regarded as serving the best Harissa in town. The Harissa in these areas is not only prized for being cooked the traditional, laborious way, but for being made by seasoned hands specializing and excelling in the art of the preparation.
(Above): Fried shallots being hand-pounded with mutton fat for Harissa.Photo by NandiniSen
“I have at least a 1000 regular customers whose forefathers have also been regular customers, visiting our shop for more than 100 years”saidZahoor Ahmed Bhat with a glint of pride in his eyes.
Love of Harissa
Unlike its culinary parent Harees, Harissain Kashmir is not a Ramadan specialty. Given the warmth it generates in the body, it is eaten only during the winter months.Harissa remains a popular gift exchanged between families of betrothed and married couples. Giving loved ones a gift of Harissa, particularly after the first snowfall, is in fact among the longstanding food customs of the Valley.
(Above): Bhat readying a box of freshly-made Harissa for a customer.Photo by NandiniSen
Such is their love of Harissa that Kashmiris take it with them, wherever they go. Bhatsaid he often receives special orders from customers living in Delhi, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and even London and New York. “The desired quantity is prepared and packed by us for such customers” saidBhat. “People living in foreign countries usually freeze-dry it in airtight containers before taking it with them.”
Most of the Harissa shops of Shehr-e-Khaas, including Bhat’s, do not carry out home delivery. “We don’t need to. Our customers come to us” saidBhat, his confidence in his art coming through.
Indeed. That people should want to scramble out of their warm beds and file outside Harissa shops, undaunted by the savage cold,speaks of the great fondness connoisseurs have for the dish.
Bhat sells Harissa at Rs.1000 per kilo, with a plate – containing 250 grams – costing Rs. 250.
(Above): Bhat smoking mustard oil, to be added as a final tempering, as a customer looks on.Photo by NandiniSen
Interestingly, Bhat, who on an average makes Rs. six lakhs from selling Harissa during one season (about five and a half months), claims he has no interest in setting up a restaurant serving other types of Kashmiri or North-Indian fare. This, despite his grocery store yielding a modest income of no more than 1.5 lakhs during the six months that Harissa isn’t sold.
“Making Harissa is our family tradition. We don’t want to get into other types of cooking” said Bhat. “Besides, I am content with what I am doing. I am happy with whatever Allah has given me” he added with a long-drawn sigh and a cryptic, Sufi-like smile.
Well, you could reliably put money into the fact that Harissa lovers feel the same measure of contentment while relishing a hearty plate of Harissa on a bitterly cold morning.
Written by NandiniSen