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Kashmir, is a land of fabled beauty and eternal romance, blessed by nature with breath-taking scenery and a glorious climate. For the gourmet, Kashmir evokes the exotic fragrance of saffron, steaming hot cups of the Kashmiri special tea ‘kahwa’ and cuisine that is unmatched in variety, presentation and taste. For most part of the year, the glow of snow ensconces Kashmir in a world of its own. The winters are harsh and the food preferred fights the chill what with the bounty of mutton, fish, poultry, vegetables and fruits. As if with the wave of the magic wand the most humble of the vegetable is transformed into a delicacy. Utmost care is taken while cooking for each dish has to be an example of perfection. 

The rarest of trees and herbs grow in this valley including the most important and the most precious of all flowers - the Kesar (saffron). The vast expanse of the Pampore Karewa plateau a few kilometers south east of Srinagar presents an ethereal sight on a moonlit night in November. The fields are awash with small lilac coloured flowers which produce this most prized spice also known as zaffran. Often referred to as the royal flower, saffron is the most expensive spice in the world. And Jammu and Kashmir is the only state in India where it is cultivated on a commercial basis. It is used extensively as an essential ingredient in Kashmiri cuisine especially in cooking of pulaos and sweet dishes. 

Kashmiri cuisine

Kashmiri food carries with it a delicious nip of all things hot and spicy. It might be a little lenient with fat as the Kashmiri’s need to have strong reserves to cope with the harsh winter months. Kashmiri cuisine is a rich tapestry of Indian, Iranian, Afghani and Central Asian styles of cooking. Kashmiri cuisine has some vantage ingredients: that is dry ginger, fennel, red chillies, curds and mustard oil. Even though it is dominated by non-vegetarian fare, the vegetarian delicacies manage to carve a niche for themselves. Puddings, snacks and curries are studded with an abundance of dry fruits like walnuts, dried dates and apricots. Cottage cheese or chaman as the locals call it, is also a popular accompaniment to many non-vegetarian and vegetarian dishes.

One of the typical ingredients in a lot of Kashmiri delicacies is the Kashmiri ver. This is a doughnut-shaped cake of ground spices with a strong and pungent aroma. A thin, hard cake with a hole in its centre, ver contains garlic and ‘praan’(Kashmir onion-a strange cross between a spring onion or scallion and a shallot) for Muslims, asafoetida and fenugreek for Hindus as well as lots of freshly ground red chillies, cumin, coriander, dried ginger, cloves, cardamom and turmeric. All these spices are ground, then made into a patty and is left to dry on wooden planks in the shade. Here it is turned over expertly many times until it is quite hard, after which it is strung and kept for the rest of the year. Small amounts are broken off as needed, crumbled and then sprinkled over many foods to give them a recognizably Kashmiri flavour.

What really is so enchanting about Kashmiri food? It would surely be the scent of saffron, steaming hot cups of kahwa and the celestial cuisine. If ‘K’ stands for Kashmir it also does for the world renowned soothing drink called kahwa tea, which is a speciality of Kashmir. With its unique aroma, kahwa is a brew of tea leaves with cardamoms, cinnamon and quite often saffron too is added. Just before serving crushed almonds are sprinkled on the brew. Kahwa not only rejuvenates but is also a health drink!

One example par excellence of the divine cuisine would probably be that of shab deg. The treatment of turnips with saffron, the special Kashmiri ver and the koftas, cooked on slow heat in a sealed deg (pear-shaped pot) till the break of dawn, lend this dish its distinguished status. The culinary skill of a cook in preparing this dish lies in the deftness with which all the koftas (mutton balls and turnips) are made to look like one another and that they are cooked to a perfect texture. Apart from the carefully crafted ingredients, pieces of mutton or game birds are also cooked in the gravy.

One of the typical ingredients of Kashmiri cuisine is the generous use of curds in the gravies, giving the dishes a rich and creamy consistency. The Kashmiris also use asafoetida to flavour their meat dishes. In fact mutton is cooked in many a varied form and more than a hundred recipes are known in Kashmir! Saunf (aniseed) and dry ginger are other spices used imaginatively to enhance the taste. For instance some dishes get their pungency not from chillies, but from dry ginger. Other dishes have no spice except may be a little saunf added to them for flavour.

Kashmiri cuisine borders on ingredients that are rich in nutrients: walnuts, almonds and raisins being some from the list of makings of a curry. To ward off the chill, the cooking medium is either ghee or mustard oil. The latter lends a typical taste to the dishes and that is what Kashmiri cuisine is all about: a beautiful blend of spices and mustard oil in specific proportions, the time and method of frying and cooking that produce many palate-tickling delights.

Kashmiris are probably the only Hindus who serve meat on religious ceremonies like marriages, shradhs etc. Traditional Kashmiri cooking does not involve onions, garlic or tomatoes. The average Kashmiri starts the day with a cup of tea and a special bread called girdha or lavasa which is baked fresh at the local bakers. Lunch typically consists of plain white rice served with a green vegetable hakh or chath monj, a cottage cheese preparation with some vegetable. At tea time, kahwa tea is served with telvor, a small baked scone which is also eaten with butter and jam. Dinner consists of rogan josh or kaliya, pala or some other vegetable and curd.

There is yet another type of tea that is associated with Kashmir. Called nun chai, it is made out of green tea, which is boiled for a long time and it has salt instead of sugar.

The great Wazwan

Riffling through the books of history one discovers that it was the invasion by Timur in 15th century that left a legacy of Kashmiri cuisine. With time there was an influx of skilled woodcarvers, weavers, architects, calligraphers and cooks from Samarkand to the beautiful valleys of Kashmir. For us the most important fact is that the cooks and their descendants came to be known as Wazas or the master chefs of Kashmir.

Wazwan (traditional Kashmiri cooking) is a unique concept in the world of Kashmiri cooking as it comprises mostly of non-vegetarian dishes that are rich and aromatic. It is a revelation that a very high percentage of Kashmiris are meat eaters including the Brahmins or Kashmiri Pandits, who even though are meat eaters many of them refrain from eating garlic and onion. Other influences are that of the Muslim and Rajput styles of cooking. A fantastic blend of all these is witnessed in the ultimate formal Muslim banquet called the Wazwan.

Guests are seated in groups of four on a dastarkhan - the traditional cushioned seating on the floor - and share the meal on a large metal plate called trami. First in line is the ritual of washing hands in a basin held by attendants. As this tash-t-nari is taken away, a ceremonious entry by a retinue of attendants is made: bearing tramis. A typical trami consists of a mound of rice divided by four seekh kebabs, four pieces of methi kebab, one tabak maaz and two pieces of trami murg - one safed and one zaffrani. Gushtaba is the final and last dish.

Relishes like raitas and chutneys look pretty in small earthenware bowls. As each trami is consumed, a new one is brought in till the feast runs its course of thirty six presentations: sometimes even thirty of them being based on meat! These thirty six courses are cooked all night long by a team of chefs called wazas under the supervision of vasta waza or master chef. The meal ends with a cup of kahwa.

Here we present to you the delicately different, but absolutely delicious Kashmiri cuisine which will transport you to the beautiful land of hills and dales. 

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MasterChef Sanjeev Kapoor

Chef Sanjeev Kapoor is the most celebrated face of Indian cuisine. He is Chef extraordinaire, runs a successful TV Channel FoodFood, hosted Khana Khazana cookery show on television for more than 17 years, author of 150+ best selling cookbooks, restaurateur and winner of several culinary awards. He is living his dream of making Indian cuisine the number one in the world and empowering women through power of cooking to become self sufficient. His recipe portal www.sanjeevkapoor.com is a complete cookery manual with a compendium of more than 10,000 tried & tested recipes, videos, articles, tips & trivia and a wealth of information on the art and craft of cooking in both English and Hindi.