As soon as two pheran clad men, a father-son duo, lift the shutters of their 200-year-old Harissa eatery in the Himalayan region of Kashmir, a troupe of customers line up outside the shop. An old man sporting a skull cap seated cross-legged in the raised corner of the shop exchanges a welcome smile with new entrants. With 60 years of experience in Harissa making, 80-year-old Ghulam Mohammad keenly watches his 45-year-old son Zahoor Ahmad Bhat serve the most cherished winter delicacy to customers.
Harissa eatery in the downtown area of Srinagar has a centuries-old legacy, where customers either book their orders days before or queue up outside the shop by dawn. With the temperatures plummeting to sub-zero levels during the winters, the craze for Bhat’s seasonal speciality runs high. Harissa lovers from the city and other parts of the valley throng the age-old shop.
“We left as early as 7 am on this cold morning to grab our share of Harissa from the eatery,” says Saim Ali, who is with his cousin Munawar Hussain, from Saidakadal neighbourhood feasting on the winter delicacy in the eatery. “We usually save our pocket money to taste this food. Eating Harissa in the morning has altogether a different soulful taste,” Munawar adds.
Ghulam Mohammad who started to make Harissa with his father at the age of 18, says that his ancestral shop has a legacy of serving the winter delicacy to many prominent personalities. From political figures to Bollywood celebrities, many people have cherished this winter treat, claims Bhat. Apart from the local political leaders, the veteran Harissa maker claims to have made Harissa for Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, King of Saudi Arabia. He adds that once when the shop was run by his father, Bollywood star Dilip Kumar also visited the eatery to taste the delicacy.
Harissa is a yummy mood elevator, which is also nutritious. Best served steaming hot on plates sprinkled with saffron, Kebab, Methi and edible oil, it is made from fresh boneless meat, wheat, mung bean, rice and a variety of spices. Traditionally eaten on the pieces or crumbles of Kandar Kchout or Lawassa (Bread), the dish proves to be one of the best delicacies in winters. The harsh cold provides the perfect environment for intricately prepared meat delicacy. Initially limited to the towns and the city, the consumption of Harissa is on the rise in the countryside, too.
Secret Behind The Flavour: Hard Work
“It takes our blood, energy and time to cook the speciality. Our work starts at 2 pm and ends by 5 am the next morning,” says the octogenarian, Bhat. The process starts with chopping the lamb. A large earthen pot is then used to cook the lamb chops on a slow flame. Earthen matka is kept on flame till the bones start separating from the mutton and it becomes meshable.
According to Ghulam Mohammad, the removal of bones from the mutton is one of the skilful tasks in the making of Harissa. Even if a small bone remains in the meat, the whole Harissa gets ruined, he adds.
In another earthen vessel in the pantry, rice cooked on slow flame is added to the soft mutton. A blend of spices like cloves, cardamom and fennel seeds are mixed with the cooked mutton and rice. The mixture is then shifted into a large copper vessel where it is continuously pounded till it turns to a paste, says Bhat.
We use a special kind of equipment to pound the mixture. Made from a wooden stick with a claw-like structure in the front, the pounding stick is known as panje or claws in local parlance. Panje is used to blend all the ingredients of the mixture, he adds.
As per the veteran Harissa-maker, Ghulam Mohammad uses about 60 kg of quality mutton to prepare around 45 to 50 kg of Harissa daily.
“Till recently, we used to sell a kilogram of Harissa for Rs 700 to Rs 800. As the input cost has increased,” he says.
Inside the pantry of the age-old eatery are at least five large earthen pots, a few small vessels all used in the preparation of this delicacy. Three small vessels filled with complimentary Methi Maaz, Kebab, hot oil respectively, a large earthen matka stuffed with steaming Harissa and stacks of beautifully designed copper plates, or Kandkari plates, are arranged in a pattern near the counter.
Playing the sweetest tunes from local Kashmiri music in the background, the eatery presents a mix of modern and medieval feel. While the alleys and streets outside the shop are astir for the gushes of blowing cold, Ghulam Mohammad and his son continue to serve the tastebud-teasing steaming Harissa topped with Methi maaz, Kebab, Pampori Saffron and hot oil.
(Written by Nasir Yousufi; Edited by Yoshita Rao)