New Delhi, Jan 25 : Kashmiri cuisine is more than just food - it's a celebration of life. Along with Kashmir's natural beauty and fine products, its cuisine is also celebrated as special, says Chef Anurudh Khanna, Multi Property Executive Chef - The Westin Gurgaon, New Delhi and The Westin Sohna Resort and Spa.

Ongoing at the Westin Gurgaon's Seasonal Tastes is a Kashmiri Food Festival, Sair-E-Kashmir, which takes one on an epicurean journey to relish the gems of the fabled Kashmiri cuisine, curated by Chef Tariq Ahmed. From a delightful spread of delicacies like Kashmiri Pulao and Rajma Dal, to Mutton Gushtaba, and Zafrani Phirni, the promotion is a culinary journey through some of the region's best known dishes.

IANSlife spoke to Chef Anurudh Khanna to find out details What are some of the indispensable ingredients in a Kashmiri kitchen?
Khanna: The valley of rich cuisine as it is called, the people of Kashmir have always taken pride in their ability to create royal feasts out of simple ingredients. From the royal Wazwan to routine dishes cooked in local households, the Kashmiris have mastered and maintained the knack of adding a distinct flavour to their food, which cannot be matched by any other cuisine in the world. When we hear of Kashmiri kitchen ingredients or spices, the popular spice saffron flashes in our mind. But there is much more to it than just Saffron. Spices which are simple, yet unheard of blend together in perfect harmony to impart that uniquely Kashmiri flavour which just cannot be put into words! Rice is the staple food of Kashmiris and has been so since ancient times. Meat, along with rice, is the most popular food item in Kashmir. Mutton, chicken or fish are of prime importance. There is a lot of use of yoghurt and turmeric in most of their dishes. Spices like cloves, cockscomb, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and fennel which are generally considered hot are used widely in different Kashmiri cuisines, while garlic and onion are not used much. The region boasts of being the leading producer as well as the exporter of saffron which is used as a colouring and seasoning agent and also as an ingredient in many of its dishes specially sweets and rice preparation. The exquisite aromatic flavour of variety of dishes, particularly seasoned with saffron, have become an integral part of Kashmiri food. Dry fruit is also used extensively in different Kashmiri dishes, especially in preparing curries. Kashmiris are avid tea lovers. The most popular and famous teas are the Noon Chai, or Sheer Chai and Kahwah. There as almost twenty varieties of Kahwah. Kashmiris also follow the technique of cooking on woods. Mention Kashmiri food and the popular dishes that you could think of are Dum Aloo, Rogan Josh, Yakhni, Gustaba, Rista, Haaq etc.

Delhi and Gurgaon have pockets where one can relish authentic Kashmiri food. What is Westin's approach to this cuisine? Khanna: Finding authentic Kashmiri food is indeed an uphill task, if one doesn't use traditional Kashmiri spices or employ the traditional cooking techniques, it could result in compromised taste.

Through all our pop-ups and culinary festivals, we try to present various cuisines in modern ways without compromising on the integrity of the cuisine. We do not alter traditional recipes or the way we serve our food. In the Kashmiri food festival, we will serve Kashmiri food the traditional way, it is supposed to be. Guests these days are seeking to indulge in exotic dishes for their palate. We are delighted to keep offering our guests a range of unique experiences based on embracing and showcasing local culture and traditional ethos. We have curated this festival to give our guests an opportunity to relish the taste of one of the most loved cuisines- Kashmiri food which is simple, full of flavours but rich in taste, with ingredients that play beautifully with your taste buds and leave an enhancing experience.

The spices and the ingredients used in Kashmiri cooking are supposed to be native to the valley which ultimately give it a traditional taste - local spices like chilies, cockscomb, turmeric and saffron will be used to achieve the authentic taste in the dishes. I strongly believe that food must evolve but stay rooted to tradition. Over the years, people have started to modernise this tradition by adding new servings such as - cold drinks, sweets, dry fruits, etc. But the real beauty of Wazwan lies in its old traditional techniques which is where our focus will be. Our guest Chef Tariq Ahmed is renowned for creating age-old authentic recipes; he has brought with him all his spices including dried Kashmiri chillies, dried cockscomb flower, cinnamon etc. from Kashmir, as he feels that only those spices brought from his homeland could be used to create the same taste and authentic recipes.

From a chef's point of view how can Kashmiri food and hospitality be popularised? Khanna: Kashmiri cuisine is more than just food - it's a celebration a life. Not unlike Kashmir's natural beauty and fine products, Kashmir's cuisine too is celebrated as special. Wazwan has now become a byword for refined Kashmiri cuisine to be consumed by the urban elites and luxury hotels and restaurants in Delhi, for instance, serve this Kashmiri feast to their guests as a gourmet experience. The richness of taste, texture, color and fragrance of Kashmiri Wazwan is unmatched and unparalleled. I have always been intrigued and interested in Kashmir cuisine, with a unique food culture - which has always piqued my interest. At the Westin Gurgaon, New Delhi, the festival is our humble way of helping in popularizing the local ethnic cuisine from the snow-capped valleys, were our guests will not only enjoy Kashmiri meals, but experience Kashmiri hospitality.

Kashmiri saffron has recently been given a GI tag, and more spices, honey and Kashmiri variants of rice may follow soon. How important is this identification? How does it help? Khanna: Kashmiri saffron, or 'Zaafran' as it is called in Urdu, is renowned globally as a spice with many medicinal benefits. It represents the rich cultural heritage of Jammu and Kashmir. Over the years, I have even used saffron from Spain and Iran, but nothing comes close to the high-grade varietal from Kashmir. Two strands are all you need. It is so potent with a deep rich colour. With production declining and apprehensions of adulteration increasing, the GI tag could restore saffron to its former glory. I am sure that its popularity and export will grow much more and this will put the spice on the world map. This will also help infuse a sense of confidence in consumers, regarding the authenticity of the saffron as well assure consumers of provenance.

Tell us about the ongoing Kashmiri food festival.

Khanna: The hotel has welcomed the famed expert Waza, Chef Tariq Ahmed from Srinagar to take its guests on a 10-day culinary symphony with a traditional Kashmiri food festival 'Sair-e-Kashmir" at its all day dining restaurant, Seasonal Tastes from 22nd - 31st January, 2021.

Using the finest organic ingredients from the valley, the master chef will prepare dishes infused with the richness of cinnamon, cardamom, chilli and saffron, the key ingredients of Kashmiri cuisine, making the festival a must-visit. What makes the cuisine special is the preparation- which is considered to be an art with the fragrance of spices, flavours, freshness and long-lasting aromas. The uniqueness of Kashmiri food lies in the basic premise that it is prepared on slow but continuous heat, which makes the food preserve its nutrients and the aroma.

The traditional Kashmiri non-vegetarian signature dishes will include Rista (meatballs in a fiery red gravy), Gushtaba (a velvety textured meatball in white yogurt gravy), Tabak Maaz (ribs of lamb simmered in yogurt till tender, then fried), Lahabi Kabab (flattened mutton kababs cooked in yogurt), Waza Chicken (two halves or two full chicken cooked whole), Rogan josh (tender lamb cooked with Kashmiri spices), Mutton Yakhni (delicately spiced yogurt mutton curry) and much more. For the vegetarian palate, there will be dishes like Tamatar Chhaman (cottage cheese squares with tomato gravy), Chok Wangan (baingan/ eggplant in a tangy yogurt gravy), Dum Kashmiri Aloo (potatoes cooked in yogurt gravy), Nadru Yakhni (lotus root with mild aromatic spices in a yogurt gravy) etc.

Zesty chutneys like Mooli akhrot chutney (a sharp radish and walnut chutney) and traditional Zirish ki chutney (spicy dried black currants and red chilly chutney) will add zing to the palate. Ending the meal on a sweet note, will be the fragrant and flavorful Zafrani Phirni, a dessert made with rice, milk and saffron - certainly a feast for the senses. Guests may complete their Kashmiri journey with Kahwa, an aromatic traditional Kashmiri green tea made with cardamom, cinnamon, saffron and cardamom, that will sooth the senses and transport them to the land where heaven meets Earth - the valleys of Kashmir.

When: Everyday, 22nd January until 31st January 2021 Where: Seasonal tastes at The Westin Gurgaon, New Delhi - Available for lunch and dinner
Price for 2 : INR 2000 onwards
(Siddhi Jain can be contacted at siddhi.j@ians.in)

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