The field of observation for my study was the village of Arang Kel. Arang Kel is a lush green village above Kel at the height of 8,379 feet. My research questions revolved around the Kashmiri cuisine. The motivation behind choosing to study the culture of Kashmiris through their cuisine was that Kashmir’s distinctiveness merely isn’t confined to its scenic beauty or Pashmina shawls, but is also preserved in its cuisine.
Kashmiri cuisine is more than just “food.” The historical aspect of present day Kashmiri cuisine can be followed back to the fifteenth century attack on India by Taimur, and the relocation of 1700 talented woodcarvers, weavers, planners, calligraphers and cooks from Samarkand to the valley of Kashmir. The descendants of these cooks, the Wazas, are the culinary specialists and masterchefs of Kashmir.
The demarcated region, at the center of much of the debate between India and Pakistan, has provided a lot in terms of resources and cultural values to both of the countries. The effect is not limited to these countries only; it expands beyond these borders as well.
The communication strategies I employed to collect the required data were participant and non-participant observations. The approach I used for my research was cultural-interactional approach. The theories I used are social interactionism and social symbolic theory since I wanted to know their behaviours and interactions with each other via symbols. Also, the reason for choosing these theories is that these theories focus on communication, symbols, and meaning. I visited the village three times; twice with my father and the third time I went with friends who came with me because I told them the place is worth a visit. In-depth interviews of community elders were taken along with informal interviews.
Coming back to my experience, the journey from Muzaffarabad till Arang Kel and Taobat was exhausting since it was eight hours drive till Arang Kel village. After which one has to trek for an hour to reach the village. While trekking, the kids (of age seven to fifteen) asked for money by selling different things. They were aware of the fact that people often feel thirsty and tired while they are hiking. Three, four kids stopped me and my father while we were trekking and asked, “You need water? I am selling it for thirty rupees”. I got into a argument with a kid, when he told me I was supposed to pay 50 rupees for sitting on any rock. I told him that this is not the right way to earn money as he has not made the rock and it is my right to sit on it, without paying anybody for it. After every five minutes of our trek, cows used to come because they were going down the trek. The route for trek was narrow and we had to wait for the cows and lamb to pass because “ANIMALS FIRST.” The trek was worth reaching once we witnessed the view offered by Arang Kel. From Arang Kel one can clearly see the Indian-held Kashmir. It seems so close yet too far away. Arang Kel’s village consists of fifteen to twenty homes. I visited it three times (three days for every visit).
My first visit to the village relied heavily on non-participant observation and also on participant observations (as I was an active member in some cases). I first wanted to acclimatize myself to that environment. My father’s presence made the first experience full of learning. Three to four people who met us invited us at their place. The houses were made of wood. Families lived in the upper portion of the homes, while the lower outer portion of their house was occupied by the animals. There were donkeys, cows, buffaloes, poultry, and even deer in the houses. Every house contained one of these animals. In our second visit, we accepted the invitation to have lunch at one house and the dinner at the other house. While me and my father went there, the whole family greeted us. They looked so happy as if we had done a favor by going at their place. I was told to go to another room where all the ladies had gathered whereas my father was with the men of the house. ‘Dawats’ are strictly segregated. Covering the head is a must while you are having food because according to them, “Satan pees on your head if you do not cover your head when you are eating.” They form religion the basis of their every custom. They told me to sit down once the food was about to arrive. The lunch started with a custom washing of hands at a bowl called the “tash-t-nari”, which was taken around by the attendants. At that point, the tramis (plates in Kashmiri) arrived, stored with rice, quartered by four seekh kababs and contained four bits of methi korma, Dum Olav, one safed murg, and one zafrani murg. Salad and chutney were served separately in little earthen pots. As each trami was finished, it was taken by the attendant, and another one was given, until the supper had run its course. The food was served to the men first and then the same food was served to the woman’s side. I had this preconceived notion that Kashmiris are mostly non-vegetarian but when I was served Dum Olav, I asked the girl for its recipe. She told me it is made with yogurt, fennel, ginger powder and hot spices.
During my non-participant observation, I noticed the main food which they were fond of was rice. Despite the fact that the wheat fields are in abundance, the people are still fond of rice. It is almost like they can never get tired of eating rice. I could see how they would enjoy rice with even simple yogurt. Since poultry products are effortlessly accessible to them, their diet consists of poultry products. The other invitation we accepted was from another man whose house was a little far away from the previous house we visited. This time we had dinner. We were greeted in a similar manner. This time we were not feeling awkward since we had learned a lot from our first lunch at someone’s place. We were given boiled rice, Matschgand, and herbal tea. One more thing I noticed, which was common in both my visits as the guest was that usage of culinary tools was little or almost insignificant. Eating with hands was appreciated.
Most of the houses I visited, they served me boiled rice with simple chicken curry. They ate in big steel plates. Four people often ate in one plate and they preferred eating by hand (As already mentioned above). People belonging from the same gender ate in one plate, that is, females only ate with the other females in the house. Since they follow the joint family system so they have plenty of members living in their house. The reason why they eat in one plate is that they believe it increases love and respect between one another (symbolic interactionism). One more thing I observed while being an active participant in that group is that they force you to put more stuff (food) on your plate. “You need to take more.” and when you refuse to take more by telling them politely, they think you are being shy and fill the plate themselves and ask you to eat. No matter how much you have eaten they are going to say, “you have not eaten anything.” so they forcefully make you eat food thinking you are being shy (symbolic interactionism- since they have assigned a symbol to someone who is refusing to eat more as somebody being “shy”)
The boiled rice had saffron (known as Zafran in Urdu and Kashmiri) in it but the smell and taste of the saffron they use is totally different from the ones we have here in Islamabad. I asked one of the sellers of saffron about the price of the small saffron bottle which was as small as that of a nail polish’s bottle. He told me “800 rupees.” I told him we get saffron at a very cheap price and in big bottles in Islamabad. To which he replied that they are not really the original ones.
“My brother sends it to me from Srinagar.” He told me.
“Did you ever visit Srinagar?” I asked
“We can’t but he does, when he visits me he brings Pashmina shawls and other stuff from there and I sell them here for a living.”
When I told him I was from Islamabad, he offered me a saffron bottle. “Beta, aap rakhlo yeh. Hum mehmano ko khali hath aur naraz karkey nahi bhejtey.” (kid, keep it. We do not send our guests empty-handed or disappointed.” This sweet gesture made me buy the bottle of saffron.
Their kahwah (green tea) has saffron in it and it is customary to serve it at the end of the dinner. Whereas on big dawats and festivals, kahwah is replaced with pink tea or Kashmiri chai.
Every house in the village had underground refuge place to go during those times when there is a huge tension between India and Pakistan, since they are vulnerable and artillery can easily damage their homes. I was not told about this by any person from the houses I visited, rather I was told this by an army person who was posted there. The sound of artillery reverberates in the ears of the people of the village all the time.
The Indian held Kashmir surrounds this village from every corner metaphorically, where one can see the other side, but can not go there. You think it is near, but it is too far away.
The village offers a wide range of food items like zaeka-e-Kashmir, especially non-vegetable cuisines made of sheep, chicken, ducks, and fish. Some of which have turned out to be enormously well-known the country over. Culinary styles of locales like Afghanistan, Persia and Central Asia are likewise recognizable in Kashmiri food. For the most part Kashmiri cuisines, the vast majority of which are set apart with abundant utilization of turmeric and yogurt are very rich in flavor and gentle in taste. Flavors like cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and fennel which are for the most part viewed as hot are utilised broadly in various Kashmiri cuisines, while garlic and onion are not utilized much. The district that brags of being the main maker and in addition exporter of saffron, utilize this shading and flavoring operator as a fixing in huge numbers of its dishes uniquely desserts and pulao (a rice arrangement). The wonderful sweet-smelling kind of assortment of dishes of this area, especially prepared with saffron, has turned into a vital piece of Kashmiri food, some kind of a trademark, making it all the more tempting among gastronomic devotees. Dry organic products are likewise utilized widely in various Kashmiri dishes. The exceptional sweet smelling kind of Kashmiri rice has earned much acclaim with the Kashmiri pulao topping the rice dishes giving firm rivalry to the different other rice delights the country over. Traditionally ghee is utilised as a part of cooking Kashmiri dishes, however in cutting edge numerous wellbeing cognizant Kashmiri families have changed to mustard oil. Everything they eat is organic because poultry is easily accessible to them and every house has one or two cows for milk. Fruits can also be seen in summer near the village.
During my third visit with my friends, I was extremely comfortable with all the people of the village. I interviewed them and asked them questions about their cuisine. Women hesitate to talk in front of the camera or recording their voice. During the interviews, I conducted I asked them about the general things about the Kashmiri cuisine. I was offered free Kashmiri chai by the local shopkeepers of the village.
The other aspect of their culture is the cuisine which again has now become part of staple diet throughout the sub-continent. The Kashmiri kulcha, and shahi pulao is served in most of the restaurants in Pakistan. The pink Kashmiri tea is also a special treat at most of their weddings. The kulcha is prepared in mostly bakeries in the main towns across the valley. Small ovens are used powered by coal or firewood. Adnan, owner of one of the bakeries near Arang Kel tells me that ‘Maida’ (flour) is the main ingredient. The rest of the recipe involves grinding the flour and mixing it with certain other ingredients before being left to prepare in the oven. The next dish which caught my attention was the Harissa. This is somewhat similar to Haleem, infact, Haleem is a derivative of Harissa, adjusted to add more spices to it.
However there is another dish which has a unique story associated to it amongst my travels. I read up on this Kashmiri dish which consisted a combination of saag and makai ki roti. I had been asking the locals since day one when I entered Neelum Valley that where would I be able to taste this novelty. I had been disappointed so far until I met Aslam Uncle while travelling to Arang Kel. He started telling me stories about Kashmir and about his experiences. As I am always eager to learn about new cultures, and Kashmir always had a special attraction for me, I couldn’t stop myself from asking all kinds of questions pertaining to their lifestyle. He patiently answered all of my queries, explaining about the origins of many of Kashmiri traditions and cuisine. He told me that the dish I was looking for unfortunately is no longer available in hotels across the valley and is only prepared at homes. I was dismayed and parted ways with him when the coaster reached Sharda. To my enormous surprise, Aslam and his wife were stationed outside our hotel room. After an hour, He comes to me and my father with fresh ‘Saag’ and ‘Makai’ ki roti wrapped up in ‘dastarkhan’. Never had I felt such affection towards a fellow stranger, and Oh my, was the food tasty! This experience embodied the Kashmiri hospitality which I had heard about so much, and less we forget how amazing cooks Kashmiris are!
The next up on my list was to try to get a taste of ‘Gushtabe’ in Kashmir and along some fresh fish if I manage to catch any. Through out the Kashmir Valley, trout has been an integral part of the staple diet, as it is readily available in rivers and fresh water streams. I was lucky enough to find a small hotel nestled in a cottage in Arang Kel. Tired from the day’s travels, it was a welcome sight to have Trout for dinner. The owner, Ghulam Nabi had managed to catch a few from the Gagai Nala flowing alongside Taobat Bala. So the dinner menu was Gushtabe with freshly baked trout for dinner. The fresh fish was tasty and the meat, skewed to perfection, felt juicy and just about right. The Gushtabe, which were meat balls with gravy had sourness to it and was a delight as well. However, it was the freshly baked trout which satisfied my grumbling belly.
Recommendations and Reflection:
Since, I started traveling and exploring Kashmir, I had always been on the lookout for Kashmiri hospitality. We were on our way to the Cham waterfall when our cars got stuck. Fighting against the inclines and out of water, that is when Amir, a locale of the place, stopped by on his own desi 125. He asked us about water and despite being total strangers; he kept on insisting that we join him at his home for lunch at tea, while the trip to the waterfall can wait. This has been a refreshing experience for me and has made me yearn to return to this region several other times to experience the distinct cuisine, rich culture and unmatchable hospitality.
I think, three visits can never to justice to a place as beautiful as Arang Kel.
Initially, I thought visiting Arang Kel’s village on my own would be difficult. So I asked my father to accompany me but I realized that in my second and third visit that it is a safe place, and the people there give more respect to women than men. I felt more comfortable as I had acquitted myself with their culture. Also, people were quite friendly when I asked them to give me detailed interviews. They wanted to tell stories because they had stories.
It is a lot easier for a male to travel to that area than a female. Without a male, it gets hard to talk to this community because it is not considered good in their culture if a female interacts with the male members but it is not like they are rude to you if you talk to them. The limitations of this project were the distance and time constraints. I still went three times but had I went more than three times; I could have made a proper documentary on their culture.
PS: I could not take photos when I went to their places as a guest. I didn’t want them to make them uncomfortable. Hence I relied on non-participant and participant observations. I have provided videos and pictures in the DVD.