A Bowl of Delicious Warmth
Harissa has its cultural and geographical significance as well as a spiritual connection regarding its origin
Like other cultures, Kashmiri people also have their own way of keeping warm during the winters when the temperatures often dip to sub-zero range mostly between November till January. As the Valley's temperature begins to drop, demands for the traditional mutton delicacy 'Harissa' begins to rise.
Harissa is one of the most sought after breakfast dishes for Kashmiris during the freezing winter months. The dish is one of minced lamb blended with rice and mild spices, cooked overnight in an earthen pot placed in the traditional wooden fire ovens.
The dish has its cultural and geographical significance as well as a spiritual connection regarding its origins. "Baba Abdul Karim Sahab who was a Sufi saint started the tradition of harissa making in Kashmir; he used to make two drums of Harissa every day, one for donation and the other for sale. The tradition began with him, and today I am the eighth generation to work in the harissa business," said Manzoor Ahmad Bhat (60) a well-known Harissa maker and seller in the downtown area of Srinagar.
There are many Harissa shops in the area, and most of these have been around for a long time. Certain places like Maisuma, Aali Kadal, Habba Kadal, Khanyar, Fateh Kadal are specifically known as 'Harissa destinations' for the locals. Patrons arrive at these shops early on winter mornings braving the freezing cold and wait in line to enjoy this special dish.
Culturally, Harissa has also been exchanged as a gift between the families of the bride and groom. It is usually fathers who send harissa to the families of their newly wed daughters.
According to the makers, eating Harissa for breakfast will keep you warm all day, even in below-freezing temperatures. Harissa is said to have properties that can guard against several ailments that can rise during the cold. "During the severe winters, Harissa keeps your body warm and that is why one can see a long line of customers outside our shops on any winter morning," said Bhat.
Harissa, it is prepared every night for eight hours by skilled chefs. "Making this dish requires a lot of labour, and is rather challenging," said Bhat, adding, "to start, we warm up the earthen pot with coals before adding the rice. After adding the meat and spices we allow it to steam, until the bones separate. Then between midnight and morning we start removing the bones and thoroughly mix the dish, till it becomes paste-like. Sale begins at around six in the morning."
Typically, the price of a Harissa plate starts from Rs 100 and it can cost around Rs 1,200 for a Kilo. The unique local style of Harissa presentation involves garnishing it with small pieces of kabab, and Methi Maaz (a chopped meat dish), both dishes from the traditional Kashmiri feast or Wazwan.
Many locals call Harrissa, the best part of winter mornings. Among them is Tawfeeq Nur (21), a college student who said that Harissa is one of his favourite meals. He said he loved the aroma of the boiling oil that is added to the plate of Harissa, and added he waits all year to relish this flavour during the winter, "Harissa is just magnificent. Srinagar's downtown is renowned for its cosy eateries where one can enjoy Harissa all winter. Eating Harissa also helps you prepare for the day's shivering cold."
However, despite this demand, many families associated with making and selling Harissa, may not see their youngsters take to this business. "I am doing this and carrying forward the tradition of my forefathers but my son might not be able to continue with this profession as this requires a lot of effort and energy," said Bhat.
However, with changing times, Harrisa is also seeing a transformation in how it reaches the customers. This may help keep it a popular dish in coming times as well. The Read Coffee Cafe in the district Pulwama is one such place where this dish is being served to locals. Parvez Ahmad, manager of the Cafe says that they serve dish as it is part of Kashmiri culture and heritage. "Because they previously had to drive to Srinagar to taste this delicacy, people are delighted to see it here," said Ahmad.
Talking about taking Harrissa to other places he further adds, "We prepare harissa in the traditional manner, it takes us around 8-10 hours for its preparation. In addition to Pulwama, we also deliver to the neighbouring Shopian region, in traditonal earthen containers that keep Harissa warm for a long time."
People in Kashmir believe that Harissa's origins can be traced to Central Asia. Travellers from there had an impact on Kashmir's overall art, customs, rituals, beliefs, and gastronomic culture. "It is not clear where Harissa first came from, but it is linked to 'Ancient Central Asia' and not the contemporary Central Asia. This is primarily associated with the arrival of the famous Sufi saint Mir Sayed Ali Hamdani (R.A) from the 14th century," said Javed Dar, lecturer Political Science in the Higher Education Department of Jammu and Kashmir.
Today, Harissa is as much an integral part of a Kashmiri society as it used to be in earlier times. "Harissa is made from red meat which in addition to protein also has a good amount of cholesterol in its content, which should only be consumed in moderation," said Prof. Iqbal Saleem Senior Professor of Surgery at Government Medical College Srinagar.
"In its preparation, oil is also added in good quantity, which raises the cholesterol levels, and has a negative long-term impact on the body. We should eat Harrisa sparingly so that it can be savoured more," he added.
Pointing out the dilemma about 'how much Harissa should one eat' is a very popular folklore in the Valley about an 18th century Afghan Governor of Kashmir, who liked the dish so much that he did not know where to stop. He simply ate Harissa until he died.
Cover Photograph Umar Dar.