Memories of a childhood spent in Kashmir, and the flavours of monjj hak on a plate of pillowy white rice
It’s a well established fact; Kashmiris love their meat. Just the sight of a goat wandering on the street is enough to make us salivate and follow it with our pressure cookers. Our meals aren’t complete without sucking on a tender piece of mutton and we are all within our rights to weasel out of family get togethers that do not serve non-vegetarian fare. In fact, a wedding can be completely discounted if the accompanying dinner doesn’t include meat; an aberration of the normal Kashmiri way.
It is said that Kashmiri cuisine can be traced back to the 15th century invasion of India by Timur, and the migration of 1700 skilled woodcarvers, weavers, architects and cooks from Samarkand to the valley of Kashmir. It is the descendants of these cooks – the Wazas – who are the master chefs of today’s Kashmir. The earliest influence of this age-old cuisine was on Kashmiri Pandits. Usually, pandits do not eat meat. However, the pandits of Kashmir are meat-eaters and (along with Kashmiri muslims) have a special place in their heart for lamb.
Wazwan, a multi-course meal usually served at weddings, is a core element of the culture and identity of Kashmiri Muslims. Almost all the dishes are meat-based and the main dishes – Rogan Josh, Seekh Kebab, Yakhni, Tabak Maaz, Meth Maaz, Rista, Kaanti are all variants of lamb. In fact, it is considered a sacrilege to serve any dish around pulses or lentils during this feast!
Yet, today’s article speaks little of my non-vegetarian heritage. Today I devote to the lesser known – but equally loved sibling – the Kashmiri green. There are many greens, wild as well as cultivated, that find their way into the Kashmiri diet; Sotzel (Mallow Green), Mujj Haak (Radish Greens), Vopal Haak (Dandelion leaves) and my personal favourite Monjj Haak (Collard Greens). These are prepared on their own or paired with Nadur (Lotus stem) or Vangun (Brinjal) and are effectively the daal-roti of the Kashmiri Pandit.
One of my most abiding memories as a child, is of running down the worn wooden staircase in Srinagar with my sister, as fast as our little legs could carry us to (1) get out of the frigid cold of the stairwell and (2) to escape the evil ghouls that lived in the staircase crevices. We would burst into the hamam-warmed main room and watch as dinner was being served in cold metal thalis piled high with long grained rice and monjj haak. Often this would be accompanied with Nadur Gogji (Turnip), Tzok Vangun (Brinjal), or Lyadur Tzaman (Cottage cheese). Grandparents, uncles and aunts would sit huddled together, kangris would be passed around under phirans and conversation would flow as we partook in this very simple fare. There would be gossip about Mr Vatal’s son’s wedding to that non-Kashmiri girl from Chennai and Behenji’s (every third aunt was named Behenji) daughter moving to Delhi to study Engineering (the only valid vocation known to a Kashmiri) as we held out for seconds. The conversations would last long after the rice had dried and congealed on our fingers.
Time passed. I moved to a new country, made new friends and had bold new experiences. But memories of colourful namdas (rugs) on wooden floors, carved windows and tightly winding alleyways in Rainawari (area in Srinagar) were always a Monjj Haak meal away.
Haak is a green leafy vegetable from the mustard-cabbage family. The leaves look like outer cabbage leaves, though darker in colour. The aroma and taste is something between spinach and mustard (though the leaves do not get mushy after cooking). This dish is served with piping hot rice and curd and is usually accompanied with an additional vegetarian dish. My non-Kashmiri friends do not understand my love for this simple – almost bland – dish. For an Indian, born and brought up on strong tastes and smells, Monjj Haak is just blanched greens. But a well cooked Haak that retains its subtle flavour, with just the right amount of hing and mustard oil, is the most delicate of pleasures. Imagine forest green leaves against a backdrop of virgin white rice and accompanied with a splash of blood red Tzok Vangun, it is a visual treat as well.
Haak is a winter vegetable, so look for it in the winter months. Unlike the old days, when a glimpse of Haak at the local Subji walla would generate mild hysterics amongst the displaced Kashmiri community, this green can now be found with most subji wallahs.
Preparing it is simplicity itself.
Recipe for Monjj Haak (adapted from this recipe here)
- 1 1/2 lb Kohlrabi green (or collard greens)
- 1 T (or more) oil, preferably mustard seed oil
- 2 green chillies
- 2 dry red chillies
- pinch of soda
- 1/2 t Kashmiri Veri Masala (we get it in the block for from the INA Market in Delhi. However, you can substitute with the packaged spice “Kashmiri Masala’ which is available in most grocery shops.)
Heat the mustard oil in a pressure cooker or thick bottomed pan. Add a pinch of hing once the oil is hot and smoky. Add two cups of water and bring to boil. Add a pinch of soda (this will help the greens to soften). Put in the greens and stir till they begin to wilt. Add a little more water if necessary but usually the leaves will let out their own water. Add the salt and chillies. Pressure cook for 5-7 minutes (or 15 minutes if you’re using a pan). Add a dash of veri masala to finish.
Best served with piping hot rice and cold yogurt.
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