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The bakery tradition of the Kashmir valley is like a gracious pause in an unfolding drama of cuisine and culture, says TWF correspondent Anju Munshi

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The bakery tradition of the Kashmir valley is like a gracious pause in an unfolding drama of cuisine and culture, says TWF correspondent Anju Munshi

On the picturesque Dal lake of Kashmir , or downtown Srinagar , you will chance upon elaborately laid out bakery shops, reminiscent of markets in the Middle East . Various kinds of breads with a golden brown crusts topped with sesame and poppy seeds beckon and promise an introduction to an indigenous culture, nutrition and taste.

As part of a cultural misdemeanour, the bakery in Kashmir used to be of two kinds, the Hindu bakery and the Muslim bakery. Muslim bakery in a Hindu household didn't stand much of a chance but many progressive families who didn't like this categorisation, smuggled it in for its rich texture and loads of taste.

One wonders how this meat eating population famous for its wazwan could have reserved a special place for bakery products. Nonetheless, it is the truth.

The morning starts with girdas and lavasa served with butter, rolled up and savoured with a cup of kahwa or nun chai or salt tea . Afternoon tea is either a katlamas , telvor , sheermal or ghyav chot - all light but rich in taste Dinner time means chochvor or lavasa, able substitutes for chapattis and also making life simpler by avoiding the rolling pin exercise.

The valley also claims to mouth watering kulchas, katlamas, in addition to Kashmiri breads like sheermal and baqerkhani,. Modur kulcha, telvaru , khamira roti.and khatai are some of the bakery items that are most sought after. Some of the other bakery related products include bakerkhani, puff (a sugar coated bakerkhani), patties and cream rolls, pastries, stuffed kulcha (oven baked), mittha baand (sweet bun), baand (salted bun),

Then there are the Tsot and tsochvoru , small round breads, topped with poppy and sesame seeds and traditionally washed down with salt tea. Bagels would be an American counterpart of telvoru Lavas is a cream coloured unleavened bread; baqerkhani is the Kashmiri equivalent of rough puff pastry and kulcha is a melt-in-the mouth variety of short-bread, sweet or salted topped with poppy seeds.

There are a number of bakeries at Dalgate and Shervani Road . A visit to GeeEnn's bakery and Ahdoos bakery on Residency Road of Srinagar encourages you to forget about dieting. Here one finds the western cuisine concept with a Kashmiri texture. The sponge cakes are divine with a taste that many say cannot be found elsewhere in the country. Ask the bakery staff and they let out a secretive smile as though acknowledging that there is a different recipe that cannot be let out.. The melt- in-the- mouth cakes sit next to biscuits with a divine texture. The biscuits come in varieties like pure almond and walnut cookies, date crumbles, cashew claspers, biscuit la' sandwich, twisters etc. Although your head and your heart may be tugging at you in two different directions one falls prey to this gastronomic seduction instantly.

Kashmiri bread has a long history behind it. The cuisine has evolved over hundreds of years and it has to be remembered that the tradition of bakery is exclusive to the Central Asian culture The cuisine has been influenced by the cultures which arrived with the invasion the Kashmir region by Timurlung from the area around modern Uzbekistan. The baker is called a kandur in the Kashmiri language and bread is tsot .What is called lavaseh in Kashmiri is lavash in Persian and similarly girdeh is common to both . What is amazingly similar is chochihwur, a chewy partially soft baked round bread of about three inches diameter and six inches circumference, that is relished with a cuppa .

In Kashmir , bread is an intrinsic part of social customs too. Roth Khabar is an interesting ceremony that takes place after the marriage. The bride's parents send a one-meter long, two and a half meter wide baked bread decorated with cashews, almonds, poppy seeds called khashkhash in and silver foil . This is called the roth . It is accompanied by a Nabad Not, a big bowl made of sugar crystals, dry fruits and shireen. There is still an unbroken tradition of giving bread and salt to the daughter when she proceeds to her in-laws’ house. This is a custom which has its roots in history. Social scientists say that in those when the bride had to travel a long way and conveyance was not easily available, the parents could rest assured that their daughter had something to eat if she was too shy to eat a full meal as a new bride on this long journey.

These lavishly garnished special breads are still prevalent in central Asia . Another kind of loaf very common to all Kashmiris is kulch in Persian kalucheh. This also is direct importation from Central Asia, says Dr. KN Pandita , director, Centre of Central Asian Studies, Kashmir University , in one of his writings, Roots of Our Culture, stressing the similarities of the two cultures.

The Arabian platter interestingly has breads lining the plate and all the kebabs are arranged over them. This kind of flattened bread is never made at home and it must be noted that throughout the Muslim world, bread is very rarely made in homes. It is invariably brought from the bakery and as such bakery has an important place in Islamic social structure. 'We are told by Persian historians that in olden days in Iran and in Afghanistan , bread was sold by measurement, then by weight and finally by pieces', says Pandita

The Kashmiri Hindus have adapted this particular eating habit too. Morning breakfast is a chochvor or a lavasah resembling the middle east bread closely. Pandita also tells us that in central Asia , a guest is received by offering him bread and salt. The guest then breaks a piece, rubs it into the salt and puts the slice in his mouth as a mark of reciprocating hospitality. "This has given rise to phrases like namak haram or namak halal meaning faithless or faithful. The question is why salt? Obviously, it makes bread palatable and is perhaps the least expensive." From here we have got the Kashmiri idiom noonas saet tsut khaen (to eat bread with salt) meaning bare sustenance.

N.N. Koul, 85 , from Kashmir who lives in Delhi now sorely misses the bakery items from back home. There are some kandurs who have shifted base to Delhi 's Pamposh colony, Faridabad and Ghaziabad areas , “But business isn't good at all,' says Avatar Mujoo, a baker staying in Palam Vihar. "This probably is due to distances in Delhi and the community is not centralised but scattered in places like Delhi and Mumbai," says Koul, who makes it a point to send someone to fetch him his kulchas and telvorus from Palam Vihar every Sunday. “For me it is like walking down the corridors of time and bringing back the taste of my childhood,” he says rather nostalgically.

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