‘Sugar?’ Amaji hands me the little copper cup containing translucent grains. ‘My mother used to say that the most delicious kahwah is so sweet that it should stick your lips together.’ Her enthusiasm cajoles me into adding a full spoon of sweetness into my China cup and reminds me of my own mother’s Algerian mint tea, so full of flavour. From the large samowar, the father serves cup after cup to our little assembly. All of us sit in padmasana, the lotus position, around a blue flowery tablecloth, our lips savouring the warm Kashmiri beverage. Deliciously scented steam escapes from the massive copper kettle, an object reminiscent of Russian nostalgia, while inside hot charcoal brings the water to boil. Green tea, cardamom, cinnamon and sugar blend into a tasteful combination, with an additional pinch of saffron to warm the heart during cold Himalayan winters. A round, salty bread called zoot, fresh from the local bakery, comes to balance the family breakfast.
Ayan invited me to celebrate the Eid-ul-Fitr, the end of Ramadan, in his Kashmiri home, without telling me what to expect. This was my third trip to North India, I felt confident, at ease, ever curious. The first steps into Srinagar confirmed these spontaneous feelings, and on the morning of Eid, the city adopted me.
Breakfast brings together family and friends around old memories of past celebrations. In the soft fumes of the samowar, grandfather Abaji and his wife Amaji break their fast, marking the end of the holy month. They have opened their door to foreigners with joy and welcomed in Christians, Hindus, Agnostics and Atheists without notice. To each of us, their children for the day, they offer an anthology of Kashmiri poetry, reminiscent of the money they used to be given when they were younger. Every year, the rituals are the same, but the faces surrounding the tablecloth change. My mind wanders and I remember Christmases in Brittany, as a young child awakening from a dreamy night full of anticipation of the gifts I would soon receive. If I close my eyes, I can almostsmell the orange blossom cake my mother would religiously cook for us. Today, kahwah and zoot have a similar taste.
As the older generation embraces the younger, Amaji looks at me and suggests. ‘Why don’t you stay with me to see how I make my yakhni?’ Staring deep into my eyes, she elects me to pass on her immemorial knowledge. A thin line emerges between us, pulling the old Kashmiri woman with authoritative wrinkles nearer to me. I am admitted into the intimacy of the blue kitchen, the most inner room of the house. For once, I see the chance offered by my position as a woman. In a patriarchal society, certain doors – closed to my fellow male travellers – open before me.
As the others leave us, Amaji hands me a wooden instrument to whisk the yoghurt. ‘Do not stop,’ she says, ‘until it boils, do not stop, not stop.’ Intimidated, I nod; I shall respect the orders. My right arm is up to the job, then the left, and the right again. Minutes pass by as I whisk, stir and mix. Amaji moves about restless, supervising the making of the dishes, the washing of the heavy copper bowls called kienz and kaabs in which we will eat and the sweetening of the mango cream we will have for dessert. Nothing is left to luck and as she comes near me every now and then, she repeats mechanically ‘do not stop, not stop.’ When the daring Abaji makes a foray into the kitchen, teasing her on her own ground, he recommends that I pause for a minute, sparking off her immediate indignation. ‘If you stop, I do the yakhni.’ Threatened, my brave arm decides to continue, until the first bubbles of the boiling water appear, relieving the pressure. Pleased, Amaji smiles at me. ‘At first, I thought that you looked like a Kashmiri woman, now you have become one.’
When I put my first yakhni on the blue tablecloth, I do not utter a word and wait. Dishes are passed around before hungry eyes. We start with a combination of steamed rice and spicy dishes, tomato paneer and turnips. Then, we eat a handful of white rice for the intermission, to clear the taste of spices before starting the sacred and delicate mutton dish – pride of the Kashmiri women. Hands grab the pale mixture, and for a moment, we eat in a religious silence. Then someone exclaims, ‘this yakhni is delicious,’ sparking off a cavalcade of compliments. A beaming smile appears on Amaji’s face, as she glows with pride. The magic of the meal has worked and brought us all together. Abaji glances at me and whispers a kind Eid Mubarak to my ears.
This traditional Eid breakfast is made of several cups of steaming hot kahwah and warm zoot, a round bread from the Kashmiri baker.
5 cups water
5 tsp. sugar (could be replaced with honey).
4 inches of whole cinnamon.
5 green cardamom, bruised.
1 pinch of saffron (6 strands(added in winter)).
2 tsp. green tea .
1-2 tbsp. sliced almonds.
Pour into warmed cups and add ¼ teaspoon sliced almonds in each cup.
This traditional mutton dish seasoned with yoghurt is the pride of a Kashmiri woman. A must for Eid festivities.
1 kg mutton
1 kg fresh yoghurt
3 tbsp. oil
1 tsp. anise seeds
3 green cardamom pods
1 cinnamon stick
Dried mint leaves
Salt and pepper
In a heavy bottomed pan, add 5 cups of water and salt. Place the anise seeds, cloves, green cardamoms, and cinnamon in cotton gauze and put it in the water along with the mutton. Let it cook for 30 minutes.
In a saucepan, fry onions and shallots in oil until brown. Add a little water and turn them into a paste with a blender.
Heat oil in another pan and add yoghurt. Stir the mixture until it boils, with no interruption. The water in the yoghurt must fully evaporate, and only a cream remains with the oil on top. This step can take up to 30 minutes.
Add the onion paste to the yoghurt cream and mix well. Reduce the flame before adding the meat pieces.
Strain the broth from the mutton and add it to the pan containing the yoghurt, onion paste and meat. Add dried mint -preferably dried in the sun- and cook for 15 minutes.
Serve hot with steamed Basmati rice.