In search of Kashmir’s nomadic delicacies
Year to year, people eagerly await the arrival of the Gujjars, and the delicious foods they make, in the Aru valley.
Braaden Hamlet, Indian-administered Kashmir – The ringing of buffalo bells and the sound of children playing with the calves tell us we are finally nearing Braaden hamlet. A dog starts barking as we drew closer, alerting everyone that strangers had arrived.
Braaden is not much more than 24 simple dwellings made of mud, stretched across a few hilltops within the Great Himalayas. Here is where the nomadic Gujjars come in the summer months, to pasture their livestock and to make and sell the delicious food we are after today.
We had come up from Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-administered Kashmir, driving about two hours to go through the congested markets of Anantnag and Bijbehara, then on through the weekend rush at Pahalgam, the valley’s most popular tourist destination known for its breathtaking scenery.
In Pahalgam, the Lidder river welcomes travellers cheerfully, revitalising souls and relieving travel fatigue. But we weren’t done travelling yet, we had to climb 2,414 metres (7,920 feet) above sea level to the Aru valley.
It was a beautiful drive, with the Lidder running alongside and the deep valleys studded with pine trees glittering like a bride’s lehenga. Nature seemed to be welcoming us too, on that single-lane road, as rain showered us sporadically, till we had to reach for our jackets, the sweltering heat we left behind in Srinagar forgotten.
Excitement built as we approached the Aru valley – here we were, passing the tiny market where the Gujjars come to sell their wares. There were the little eateries for the day-trippers, and there were the tents dotting the fields beyond, housing the trekkers headed to the mountain lakes, like the Tarsar and Marsar. The fields and forests stretch up, up, up, to the Katarnag, with its peaks capped with snow all year.
In the hamlet, we look around for someone to explain our visit to; we’re the first two journalists to visit Braaden, which has only seen the odd trekker or tourist to date. We’ve waited a while because we know they spend the cold months in the lower plains, but now that they’re here we want to talk to them about kalari, kudan, and gucchi mushrooms.
Butter and kalari
We’re greeted with a soft “As-salamu alaykum” from Bashir Ahmad, a tall, well-built man in a turban and sporting a long hennaed beard.
He listens quietly as we explained what we were after, then says: “Come with me, I will show you how we prepare this food,” and leads us to one of the simple mud homes.
The single-room house comprises a kitchen and a raised nook where the family’s elders sleep – occasionally there would be space for the children, too. A wooden partition divides the kitchen from the rest of the room. There are three openings that function as windows, as well as a wooden chimney.
There, he briefs his 45-year-old wife, Zulaikha, who wears a simple green kameez over a patterned salwar with a red topi cap on her head covered with an indigo and red shawl. She nods at Bashir in silent agreement, then turns to us and says: “I’ll prepare food, but drink tea first.”
As one of her daughters-in-law makes tea and some rotis for us, Zulaikha walks over to a big steel pot standing by a post in the corner of the house. It is full of milk she has collected over the past eight days. She tells us she usually collects the milk over several days and makes kalari about once a week, we’re lucky that she’s got enough milk today.
She puts a big wooden churner into the milk pot and attaches it to the post to keep it upright, adding a kuda, a wooden collar, to the base of the churner that serves to steady it and reduce the splashing of milk. In either hand, she grasps a well-worn sheep bone attached to the ends of the cord wound around the churner to turn it. Both the sheep bones and the kuda have been in the family for generations.
Zulaika begins churning gently and steadily, murmuring Bismillah (in the name of God). The process will take nearly three hours.
After a while, her breathing deepens as she exerts greater effort. She checks the pot’s temperature and asks her daughter-in-law to take red-hot embers from the hearth and put them under the pot for more warmth.
When it’s time, Zulaikha starts gathering the butter that has settled on the surface of the milk. She takes it in her hand, shapes it, and puts it in a bowl, then goes back to churning. She repeats this five to eight times until she sees the milk can no longer be used to make butter.
With the leftover milk, essentially whey, she can begin making kalari.
In a pot, she mixes the whey with some whole raw milk and puts them on the kitchen hearth, stirring as the whey curdles the milk and solids start to separate. After about 20 minutes, Zulaikha starts collecting the solids with a spoon, lifting them out of the pot and shaping them into little balls that she places on a plate as she works.
She then pats the curd balls, passing them from hand to hand to turn them into the familiar discs of kalari that are either sold fresh in the market or sun-dried till they resemble white roti or milk bread. Kalari, unlike other types of cheese, never loses its suppleness and has a strong flavour.
Today, Zulaikha tells us, she will be serving up some kalari for lunch, prepared using a method that is very popular in roadside stands throughout the region. First, she coats the kalari with chilli, turmeric and salt, then fries them in mustard oil until they form a crisp, golden outer layer and the inside stays soft and creamy.
The kalari is served up with rice today, but Zulaikha makes sure to tell us that it also works great as a breakfast with a cup of tea. It can also be found in many eateries in the region, enveloped in bread and known as a kalari kulcha.
Out of the 10kg (22 pounds) of cow’s milk she started with, Zulaikha made about two kilogrammes (4.5 pounds) of butter and a dozen kalaris to sell at the market. All together, they will make her roughly 900 rupees ($11.50).
It may not seem like a lot of money, but for Zulaikha it is worth it. “It helps me run my house because I make enough from selling kalari and butter to buy all my necessities,” she says.
Gucchi pulao: Rare, expensive, and delicious
As we sat eating beautiful crisp kalaris and chatting with the family, a relative of theirs comes around, 20-year-old Shaheena Jan. She had heard there were two journalists in the hamlet asking about food and had come to tell us she’s about to make a gucchi pulao, a dish as rare as it is delicious, and would we like to come over?
Needing no further invitation, we walked over to Shaheena’s parents’ home, one of the seven homes on that slope, all belonging to one large extended family. She had joined her parents four months ago to give birth to her second child as is the custom. There are seven people in the house, Shaheena’s parents, her brother with his wife and three children, and her sister Maroofa, 25, who has come over to see her sister and will cook with her.
Shaheena has gathered some gucchi mushrooms (wild morels) from the hills around the hamlet and was about to cook a pulao with them for a guest of the family, Ghulam Rasool Mir, who has been buying milk products from the family for many years and has developed a special bond with them. She’ll be cooking as she and her sister pass the baby back and forth from lap to lap.
The family doesn’t normally eat the gucchis themselves, and have little idea how expensive the dish Shaheena is preparing would be elsewhere. They prefer to sell them because they fetch a decent price, eating only what they don’t sell, or cooking them for special occasions.
Gucchi pulao requires a lot of steps and, of course, requires some really good gucchi morels to make it with.
Shaheena had two pans out already, one had had the washed morels soaking in it for a while, and the other had some rice soaking in it for the past quarter of an hour or so. She put the rice on an earthen stove and cooked it till all of the water was absorbed, then the rice got set aside to cool and wait for its turn in this complex cook.
To be ready to go, Shaheena has set out a metal plate that she arranged all her spices on. One by one, she had removed a few cloves, cardamom, black cardamom, and some cinnamon, chilli and salt from their plastic bags and arranged them on the plate.
Next up, the morels, which are cooked on the earthen stove for about 15 minutes and the cooking liquid discarded. She spoons some homemade ghee into a pan and heats it until it melts, then drops the drained morels in the pan, swirling them around in the ghee with some whole spices, cloves, green and black cardamom, and cinnamon. As the mixture simmers for the next 15 minutes, scents start wafting out of the house.
When Shaheena believes the combination is perfectly fried, she transfers it to a silver saucepan, adds the rice and cooks it gently for another 15 to 20 minutes. Then she mixes the elements together and leaves it on for another 10 to 20 minutes to make sure that the gucchi morels are fully cooked and the rice has absorbed all of their fragrant juices. Then she adds salt, chilli and turmeric one after another and continues stirring it for another 10 minutes.
When she finally deems the dish ready, Shaheena spreads a dasterkhan (tablecloth) on the floor and places in front of Ghulam Rasool a steaming platter of gucchi pulao.
Ghulam Rasool is in awe of the meal. “This is my favourite dish because I can’t find it anywhere else. In Pahalgam, there is just one restaurant that serves it, and it is incredibly pricey.
“This food has such a distinct taste, and it makes me feel special,” he says, adding that he loves the slightly tart flavour the mushrooms give it and the richness of the spices and ghee.
“It is unlike anything else I’ve ever eaten,” he says.
Kudan and rotis
As the family sat eating and Ghulam Rasool’s compliments showered the cooks in praise, we heard the sound of a flock of sheep bleating in unison from the next hillside over. We asked Zulaikha who said the sheep belonged to a Bakarwal family who had recently set up camp nearby.
Bakarwals are another Scheduled Tribe in Indian-administered Kashmir, along with the Gujjars, who we were visiting. So, we decided to head up and visit this new family as well.
As we trudged uphill, we saw a young woman ahead, carrying firewood on her head and moving much faster than we could manage. We followed for about five minutes, trying to keep up, but she put her bundle of firewood down near the tent and had scurried inside already by the time we got there, probably telling her mother we were there.
We approach the open-sided tent cautiously, calling out our greetings. A reply sounds from within and 60-year-old Ban Bargat comes out to greet us with a smile that twinkles in her greenish eyes.
She welcomes us and asks her daughter to spread a mat on the floor for us to sit down on. We sit, and explain what we were there for, to learn about the food that the tribes made using their livestock’s milk and food foraged in the wild.
Ban tells us her family had pitched their tent on the hill about a week ago and was possibly planning to stay for a few days longer. She also says she is about to make some kudan – if we would like to observe that. But first, she asks, would we have some tea? We thank her for her offer and say we really would rather just watch her as she works.
Ban insists, her innate generosity rising to the surface, as it does when she and her family offer hikers and tourists passing by food and tea also. She offers all the other refreshments their simple pantry had to offer – including some kudan that had been made earlier – but we finally convince her that we will have some tea when she had finished making kudan.
Dressed in a traditional salwar kameez with a topi cap and shawl on her head and a long silver pendant around her neck, Ban walks over to the pot of goat-milk whey in the middle of the tent and starts working. In the tent with her are her three daughters, Tasleema, Ruksnaa and Zainab.
Her churner looks a lot like Zulaikha’s, only smaller. Ban puts it in the pot and fits a wooden collar around it, attaching churner and collar to one of the tent’s poles. To turn the churner, she wraps a cord around it several times and takes one end in each hand, she’s ready.
She churns the whey for about 20 minutes before transferring it to another pot that had fresh milk in it. The pot then goes over a homemade stove, basically an iron stand that holds the pots up over a wood fire, to heat the milk.
Once cheese curds formed, the pot was set aside to allow the mixture to cool. Ban dips a finger into the pot to see if has reached the right stage. It has, so Ban wraps a cheesecloth around the mouth of another pot and pours the mixture through it, the cloth catching all the curds.
She collects the solids from the cheesecloth and shapes it with her hands, then lays it on a plate to set some more. This is kudan.
To prepare some kudan for her family, Ban heats some mustard oil in a pot on the fire. As she waits, she mixes some salt, turmeric and chilli in a small bowl. When it’s hot, she adds the kudan to the pot and drops in the mixed spices, mixing with a spoon until everything melts together into a golden liquid flecked with red chilli and small nuggets of kudan.
She pours the sharp-tasting golden liquid into cups and prepares the rotis with her daughters as they wait for her husband and three sons, who had taken their sheep to graze in the nearby meadow, to return for the meal.
The family – Ban, her daughters, her husband Mohammad Razaq, and three sons, Juneed, Muzammal and Mohamamd Khadim – huddled together near the stove and ate their kudan and rotis, murmuring appreciatively from time to time. Then the discussion moves to the weather, specifically what the weather is like up on the Kolhai Glaciers, where they’ve been trying to go for a few days now to meet up with the other Bakarwals. If the weather works in their favour, they can leave sooner. If it doesn’t, they need to stay a bit longer.
Her family left their home in the Sunderbani jungles of Jammu’s Rajouri district in late April. They trekked across the Pir Panjal mountain range for nearly two months, entering south Kashmir’s Shopian region along the Mughal road and passing through the mountains to their current campsite.
They are Bakarwals, after all, a nomadic herder tribe who make up Kashmir’s third-biggest ethnic group along with the Gujjars – with about 1.5 million people (11.9 percent of the total population).
Bakarwals migrate from Jammu’s mountains to Kashmir’s meadows in the summer to feed their sheep, and then return to Jammu in the winter. All told, they walk their sheep through forests, meadows, and roads for two months, covering around 600km (373 miles).
The Gujjars and Bakarwals of Jammu and Kashmir
Dr M K Waqar, 70, is one of the first members of the Gujjar community to earn a doctorate. His thesis topic was the history and culture of the nomadic Gujjars and Bakarwals in Jammu and Kashmir.
According to him, there are various stories concerning the origins of the Gujjars, but he believes they came from Rajasthan and the surrounding territories of Gujarat and Kathiawar to escape the famine and war in the region in the 6th and 7th centuries.
“At the time of migration, they were Hindus, but were captivated by Kashmiri Sufism and converted to Islam. That is the reason the majority of the Muslim Gujjars are found in Jammu and Kashmir,” he says.
He adds that 70 to 75 percent of Gujjars are Hindus, while the remaining 20 to 25 percent are Muslim, with the majority living in Jammu and Kashmir. Some can be found in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh.
The Bakarwals, Waqar says, came from Georgia, at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Western Asia, in the 13th century, when the area was subjected to several incursions and invasions.
Those Bakarwals migrated through east Iran, and Afghanistan, entering the Indus valley with their livestock and settling in places like Gilgit, Skardu, and Swat near Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, and some in Jammu and Kashmir.
“The traditional outfit of the men, which consists of a turban, a kameez salwar, and a waistcoat, is comparable to that of Afghans,” Waqar says.
Back in Zulaikha’s mud hut, she’s making noon-chai, a pink-salt tea, for her family, mostly men, who are used to having a cup of tea after work.
She cuts roti into little pieces and tosses them in a bowl of freshly churned butter, mixing them together by hand before serving it to the family, one pinch of the mixture in each family member’s cup as they arrive.
“This will rejuvenate them and put a stop to their exhaustion from the day. I have been feeding them this food to keep them fit and healthy,” she says.