Harisa- The classic Dish of Kashmir

A scrumptious winter delicacy the exotic dish harisa is made by capable valley chefs who possess great culinary skills. This classic cuisine connects people to their roots and is presented in a pleasing fashion that delivers exquisite taste. Harisa once much liked by high society has become a popular winter dish in today’s Kashmir.

Harisa is now being prepared and sold in every lane of small and big towns of Kashmir. Also, some people like to cook it in their houses. A few young entrepreneurs offer door-to-door service in the capital city. The culinary artists in new food outlets take good care of hygiene, quality check, taste and plate presentation to serve customers in a decorative style to enhance aesthetic appeal. But the harisa you get to eat in the old city (Shahr-e-Khaas/ Downtown) is very special.

Shah-e-Khaas, a part of the extended Srinagar city in past served as the imperial capital as well as a royal residence for many centuries. This place has kept alive traditional art and crafts besides achieving mastery in making conventional dishes of Kashmir. The traditional way of making and serving harisa can only be seen in the downtown area of Srinagar where you can find some families associated with this inherited business for centuries. They make this dish in earthenware and serve it to consumers on copper plates. Since the dish was introduced in the valley, it was the people of this place who went on with this profession as they acquire it from their forebears.

The Valley occupants believe in the hot and cold nature of foodstuff. Walter R. Lawrence writes ’the Kashmiris consider all kinds of grain to be either hot or cold and believe in the mixing of cereals, pulses, vegetables and fruits’. This is very true even today we think and do the same. Owing to the hot nature of harisa it is only made when the mercury drops in Kashmir. The zesty seasoned diet helps to maintain body temperature during freezing Himalayan winter.

There are many varieties of harisa and different ways to prepare it worldwide. In Kashmir too, a fine type of harisa with a unique style is traditionally made for centuries. The Harisa makers of downtown have a speciality in making Zafrani Mutton Harisa. The main ingredients used in this dish are Kashmiri rice and mutton added with different spices, especially saffron.

Rice put in a big clay pot affixed to the hearth is cooked thoroughly until it becomes a paste, then added with lamb stew and spices, kept overnight after closing the lid tightly to generate steam inside the vessel helps to detach flesh from bones. In the last third of the night, the bones are removed, and it is cooked slowly again on low flame for hours. With proper mincing and continuous stirring, the dish becomes ready to serve on the breakfast table.

A thick porridge is served hot, topped with kabab, methi maaz (sauce made of meat), and thinly sliced onion or shallots, the final touch with piping hot oil or ghee gives it a pleasant look. The luscious morsels of food are eaten up with a tandoori roti locally known as Girda. A detailed procedure to follow makes it difficult to cook. It takes almost an entire day to prepare it but sells out shortly after it is made. With the crack of dawn people in Srinagar throng to harisa shops, stand in long queues, and wait for their turn to chomp happily the hot-flavoured harisa.

In an interview, I heard an old cuisinier carrying forward his family legacy, who owns a harisa shop somewhere in Shahr-e- Khaas saying these lines while pointing his wooden spatula towards loaded plates...

"Isko kehte hai haresa-e-zafrani, tohfai Irani, yaad rakhoo zubani, ye dukaan hai purani, khate hai isko khandani, khayee bodha paaye jawaani, ye hai harisa-e- zafrani..."

"This is called harisa, a saffron-flavoured dish. A gift from Iran to the people of Kashmir. Keep in your mind this shop is very old and serves this dish for a long time. This recipe is eaten by well-off families. If old people will eat it they will become young again. This is saffron-flavoured harisa..."

With the inrush of substantial people from the west and central Asia, after the beginning of the medieval era in Kashmir, the contacts with the Muslim world became stronger. Carrying on old customs, the Kashmiris lent space to accommodate new things and ways imbibed from foreign lands.

The Persian culture had a great impact on Kashmir culture. It greatly affected society and left impressions on many things such as food, dress, language, etc which is why it is sometimes called Iran-e-Sageer. Many shop owners in Srinagar who inherited this tradition for many generations believe this a gift from the Shah of Hamdan, popularly known as Ameer Kabir, who visited Kashmir many times in the 14th century. Introduced in the Sultanate Period (Shahmiri Dynasty) it gained popularity with time. A. M. Mattoo in his book Kashmir under the Mughals writes ’A brothlike dish of Mutton, rice and spices called Harisa was sold in the city during winter months and was relished by all sections of the society’.

In ancient records, we find many references to mutton taken freely by people. However, we know how it was being cooked, but have insufficient information about varieties made out of it. Marco Polo (13th century) tells us the food of the people was flesh with rice. It was perhaps in the post-Sultanate period that many dishes were made of meat. P N K Bamzai writes ’The Mughals introduced their choicest cuisine and the Kashmiri cook learnt the preparation of Goshtaba, Kabab and Rogan Josh’.

The protein-rich diet has great nutritional value. Besides mutton, nowadays chicken and beef harisa are quite famous. A large network of harisa shops is spread across the state capital. Most of them are located in Shahr-e-Khaas. The owners of these shops generate good revenue by selling this special dish in winter. Though for a short time, both skilled and untrained labour doing such chores get employment and earn few pennies to spend the winter easily. The recipe brings happiness everywhere from its maker to eaters.
Syed Aamir Sharief Qadri
PG History, M. Phil, SET, Freelance writer
Anthology: The Fear in Me, Thought for Food, Dear Diary, Image Perception, Maa Se Main, Fake Love, Diversity, etc.