Restaurant critic Michelle Pereira checks out the cuisine in exotic Kasmir
Four days in Kashmir and I’m convinced it deserves its reputation as “Heaven on Earth”. We were based in Srinagar, the capital and largest city. Imagine Vancouver with incredibly hospitable people, almost no rain, and surrounded on all sides by snow-capped mountains. The tourist trade hasn’t discovered the potential here: Just one ski-resort, two golf-courses, and no McDonald’s or Holiday Inns.
Indian tourists vacation in Srinagar to escape the heat. They stay on one of hundreds of houseboats on Dal Lake in the centre of the city. We stayed at Mr. Butt’s houseboats, recommended on many internet travel sites. Mr. Butt, a gregarious older gentleman, rushed out to greet us and then quickly pointed out that his guest list has included George Harrison and Ravi Shankar when the latter taught the former the sitar, the Rockefellers, Peter Jennings, and a long list of ambassadors and dignitaries.
Our accommodation was superb with our own beautiful houseboat adorned with period pieces. But the meals were average at best, a bit too salty, the curries all similar, and little variety in preparation. I have always wanted to try Wazwan (36-courses, all meat) with Rogan josh (a rich lamb curry) one of the signature dishes. A dessert such as Phirni (a cardamom-scented rice pudding) would round out the meal. But no luck this time so it’ll have to wait for my next trip back. The staff at our guest house was marvelous, making sure all our needs were met. Hot water bottles warmed our bed at night while fresh Kashmiri tea (green tea with ground cardamom, almonds, and saffron) was at our beck and call. I’m not sure I’d stay here again or recommend it. There was too little Kashmiri culture and the staff was uniformly unhappy at their treatment by the proprietor.
Kashmir is famous for many things: carpets to rival Persian, luxurious shawls of Pashmina goat wool, and food. I went looking for Kashmiri saffron, treasured in Indian cuisine. Saffron is the stamen of the crocus flower and is handpicked to avoid crushing the stamen. This is labor intensive and even in India, saffron runs upwards of $9/gram. Only three regions world-wide grow commercial saffron: Spain, Iran, and Kashmir. Spanish saffron is widely available in Canada while local Persian stores may carry the spice. I prefer Persian to Spanish but I’ve always wondered how Kashmiri would compare.
In Kashmir, tourists often get taken in by fake or inferior saffron so we trekked out to Pampore, where it’s grown. I found myself at a small road-side stand, famous with the locals, trying to communicate with the owner. He opened a big jar of bright red strands and I inhaled deeply … wow. I’m not sure it’s better than Persian but definitely high quality. Some negotiating and 2500 rupees (about $55) got me 10 grams – jackpot.
Addicted, I went around tasting and smelling everything. My loot included walnuts (another Kashmiri specialty), cumin (more flavourful than at home), Afghanistani raisins, green cardamom, a tikka masala paste of famous local chilies and more. I spied a little bakery and ran over to taste various crusty rolls made in a Tandoori oven meant to be eaten with tea. My husband watched as I handed over fist-fulls of rupees, enthralled by the food possibilities on our return but wondering if we’d leave as paupers.
I’m writing this from the Srinagar airport as we wait for our plane back to Delhi. This evening, I’ve made a surprise dinner reservation – the most revered Indian restaurant and the only one with a Michelin star. My next column will describe our food experience there.
- post by Michelle