MUZAFFARABAD: Harissa is something that Kashmiris can introduce with pride to tourists and visitors arriving in the Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) capital.
Although it is unfortunate that people in general are not interested to preserve, promote and encourage the region’s rich cultural heritage, regretted Ghulam Mustafa Lala, owner of a historical restaurant.
Lala, 55, refers to what can rightly be described as a ‘winter delight of Kashmir’ — soon after the advent of the winter season, Harissa becomes the most sought after food item, not only for the Kashmiri speaking but also the non-Kashmiri speaking families that have developed a taste for all things Kashmiri.
Lala starts offering Harissa in his Lalazar Café from the first week of December, every Saturday and Sunday.
The Café was established by his late father Ghulam Mohammad Lala, a migrant from Indian held Kashmir’s Baramulla district, in 1967, in a narrow alley, off the AJK capital’s famous Madina Market.
Junior Lala inherited the culinary skills from his father and currently is the only accredited chef of the famous Kashmiri dish.
For years now, the Lalazar Café has been attracting food lovers to a multi course midday or evening Kashmiri meal, known as wazwaan. Harissa is not part of wazwaan but it is a morning specialty which is offered by none other than Lala.
Lalazar Café was directly affected by the devastating 2005 earthquake in Muzaffarabad, part of the building crumbled and three members of the family died.
However, two years later, the establishment was back up, offering the same mouth-watering delicious Kashmiri dishes to its loyal customers.
“It’s not an ordinary dish that you can prepare quickly. It takes a lot of time and effort,” Lala said of Harissa, as he skimmed the stuff in a large pot.
“I start its preparation on Thursday only to make it ready for customers by Saturday morning…I make around 1.5 mounds for the weekends and nothing is left by 11am on Sunday,” he added.
Some call Harissa mutton halwa, as it is made of mutton with addition of rice or wheat as well as spices. The concoction is heated and constantly stirred for hours together until it becomes mushy and pasty. Onions fried in oil or ghee till they become golden brown, are poured onto it and when served at the Café or packed for home delivery, Kashmiri riata or kebabs are also added.
Some historians attribute Harissa’s origin in Kashmir to Central Asia, which influenced the art, custom, rituals, belief and the food-culture of the Kashmiris. And thus they got the blessing in the form of a flavoursome delight, now known as Harissa.
On any given Sunday, one can witness avid customers queuing up for Harissa outside the Cafe. Pink Kashmiri tea is also available with the food.
Lala sells one kilogramme of Harissa for Rs600, whereas a plate in the shop costs Rs150.
Given the rapidly dipping value of Pakistani currency, the price seems to be affordable as the same commodity is sold at around 900 Pakistani rupees in Srinagar, across the border, which is the hub of this delicacy.
Due to its small size, the Café offers little space to its customers, which is why most people prefer to pack the commodity with them and enjoy it with their families at home. Following a tradition, many bring utensils from home for the purpose but proper parcel packing for the rest is also available.
Ghayasuddin Shah, a Srinagar born retired government official, is one of the loyal customers of the Cafe.
“Last week, I dispatched 10 kilogrammes of Harissa to my elder sister who lives in Lahore…She shared it with her Kashmiri neighbours and everyone enjoyed it,” he told Dawn.
Tariq Zargar, a jewellery merchant from Faisalabad, said he was in love with Harissa, since 2005, when he used to run a jewellery shop in Muzaffarabad.
“I have come all the way from Faisalabad to satiate my appetite for this delicacy. I will be taking it with me as well,” he said.
Dr Abdul Majeed Banday, a visiting lecturer at the department of Kashmiriyat in AJK University, says that in a city where the trend of dining out is still insignificant, survival of such eateries offering traditional food is an astonishing feat.
However, Lala is unhappy at the lack of any patronage by the government, although he believes that he has kept the Kashmiri culture alive, despite the odds.
“If the government develops a food point along some main road, many more people might feel encouraged to carry forward this skill, which is no less than an art,” Lala said.