India is a vast country. Its geography and climate vary tremendously, from the landlocked mountains and the fertile Indo Gangetic plains in the North, to the arid Deccan plateau and the coastal regions of the South. It is these differences that have given India a rich and varied tradition of food.
India is made up of people from several faiths, and the gulfs between them are substantial, including dietary customs and prohibitions. Thus, the Hindus and Sikhs will not eat beef; the orthodox Hindus and Jains avoid onion and garlic, considered "passion-inducing"; the Parsis, who came to India in the seventh century from Persia, gave up eating beef as a gesture of thanks to the Hindu ruler who gave them asylum; and the Muslims and Jews abstain from pork but relish beef, the meat of sheep, and chicken.
Although India is associated strongly with the concept of vegetarianism, which came into being with the advent of the faiths of Buddhism and Jainism in the sixth century b.c.e., the majority of people in India are, however, nonvegetarian. In Punjab, chicken, lamb, and goat meat are relished, and in Kashmir, the Kashmiri pundits are known for their love of meat and famous wazwans (feasts), where up to thirty nonvegetarian courses may be served. Nonetheless, in most Indian families where meat is consumed, this occurs no more than one day a week, usually on a Sunday afternoon. For many other families, meat is consumed only three or four times a year, usually at weddings. In many middle-class families in the North, it is common to find women who do not partake of meat, fish, or eggs, while the men in the family do. The consumption of meat in these areas is sometimes associated with masculinity.
India is a melting pot of people of all religions and races, its diversity resulting from countless invasions and migrations, including those of Alexander the Great (356–323 b.c.e.). Invaders came in search of wealth and soon discovered India's spices.
The food of North India was greatly influenced by the Persians, who entered India in the eleventh century. From the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries, Mongolian conquerors brought with them Afghan and Persian cuisine, the rich and fragrant foods of their regions. This marked the start of luxurious eating. Pilafs and biryanis (meat-based pilafs), garnishes of varak (sheets of pounded silver), spicy kormas (braised meat in creamy sauces), koftas (grilled, spicy meatballs), and kababs graced the tables of the emperors and intermingled Hindu and Muslim cuisines: the meat dishes of the Middle East combined with the spicy gravies that were indigenous to India. And, Muslim naans (bread cooked in a tandoor) and chapatis (bread cooked on a griddle) were consumed side by side with the more traditional pooris (bread made from whole wheat flour and fried in oil) and bhathuras (bread made from white flour and yeast and then deep-fried in oil). The idea of ending a meal with a confection also originated in the Middle East. Most of these were made of almonds, rice, wheat flour, or coconut, sweetened with sugar, and scented with rose water.
More recently, Indian cuisine has been influenced by the British, particularly in certain sections of society, such as the army and among educated, urban professionals. They institutionalized the use of white bread, as well as sandwiches, toast, and tea drinking.
Seasonality of Cuisines
The well-defined seasons of India bring with them a series of particular fruits and vegetables. Thus, menus and diets vary considerably year round—from lush berries in the early days of summer to ripe watermelons available during the later hot weeks of the same season. Certain seasons are associated with specific foods, according to the Sushruta Samhita, an ancient medical text, written around 600 b.c.e. It recommends pungent foods in spring, sweet and cold in summer, salty and sour during the rains, sweet in autumn, and greasy and hot in winter.
In Kashmir, where the winters are cold, the staple diet of meat, fish, and rice is supplemented with vegetables that have been sun-dried during the summer months. Seasonality also extends to herbs and spices. During the cold months of winter, "heat-generating" spices like cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, black pepper, and chilies are used in cooking to keep the body warm. Mace is considered taboo in summer, whereas poppy seeds are regarded as cooling during the summer months.
Foods of the Northern Region: Kashmir, Punjab, Uttar Pradeshi, and Rajasthan
Traditionally, Indian food is served as a complete meal in one course. It is composed of several vegetables, a dal (a purée of lentils), and a central starch, which is the main source of calories. Yogurt, relishes, and chutneys are served on the side. In the North, the starch is unleavened bread, such as chapati (a flat griddle bread). People in the North tend to eat more wheat and maize, which are easily available and made into bread.
Pulses high in protein, carbohydrates, and fiber have always played an important part in the diet of Indians. For vegetarians, pulses provide essential proteins.
The most commonly eaten meats are chicken, mutton, and fish. A rice-based sweet usually signifies the end of a meal. Savory and sweet snacks are very popular, but do not correspond to specific meals or dishes. Northern India has a great tradition of "snacking."
Alcohol is not consumed along with food, but iced water or lassi (a yogurt-based drink) usually accompanies the meal. Aperitifs like kanji (made from fermented carrots and mustard seeds), aam panna (raw mango juice), jaljeera (made from tamarind juice and cumin seeds), and nimbupani (fresh lime juice) are the favored drinks in the North.
North Indians place great emphasis on the use of milk and milk products in their cuisine. This is particularly true of the Punjabis, who use a great deal of ghee (clarified butter), white butter, paneer (homemade cottage cheese), and cream in their cooking. For those who cannot afford or tolerate ghee, the preferred oils are mustard and peanut.
Tandoori cuisine has its origins in the northwest frontier province, now in Pakistan. The cuisine gets its name from the tandoor (the oven in which the food is prepared) and has contributed to the growing popularization of Punjabi cuisine throughout the world. In many cases, tandoori cuisine is synonymous with Indian cuisine.
Northern Indian Cuisine by State
Kashmir. Kashmiri cuisine is a unique blend of Indian, Iranian, and Afghani cuisines. It is essentially meat-based and centered on a main course of rice. Unlike the Brahmins in other parts of the country, the Kashmiri Brahmins are nonvegetarian.
The abundance of dried fruit and nuts (walnuts, dates, and apricots) in the region has inspired their use in desserts, curries, and snacks. Sauces for curries are made from dairy-rich products.
A local spinachlike green called haak is popular in the summer months, as are lotus roots, which are used as a meat substitute. Fresh vegetables are abundant in the summer, including a prized variety of mushrooms called guhchi, used only for special occasions. Fresh fish is favored in the summer, while smoked meat, dried fish, and sun-dried vegetables are used in the winter.
Kashmir is also known for a very special green tea called kahwa, flavored with saffron, cardamom, and almonds and served from a samovar, a large metal kettle, which originated in the Russian steppes.
Punjab. Punjabi cuisine is simple, substantial, and robust, reflecting the extremes in climate and the industrious nature of its people. It forms a distinctive part of the culture. Everyday meals are centered on bread; there are a great variety of flat breads. Parathas (breads that are plain or stuffed with shredded, seasonal vegetables, seasoned with herbs and spices, and baked on a hot griddle) are favored for breakfast, served with a dollop of homemade butter.
Main meals throughout the year would comprise one dal, at least one seasonal vegetable, chapatis or parathas, and yogurt. Lassi (a yogurt shake) accompanies the midday meal, and pickles are served on the side. Some of the more popular dishes include a variety of locally grown legumes and dals, cooked whole or split, saag (spinach), mutter paneer (homemade cottage cheese cooked with peas), and baingan bhartha (smoked eggplant cooked with tomato). Punjabis are fond of nonvegetarian food like tandoori chicken, chicken curry, and meat koftas (meatballs in gravy). Sweets are welcomed; carrot halva (grated carrots cooked with milk solids and clarified butter and garnished with almonds) served hot is a favorite in winter, while chilled kheer (rice pudding) is popular during the summer. Makki ki roti (corn bread) and sarson ka saag (mustard greens) served with white butter is another well-liked winter dish. Rice, which is prepared only for special occasions, is rarely served plain. It is made with cumin or fried onions or, in winter, jaggery. Punjabis prefer aromatic basmati rice, especially at banquets and large social gatherings.
Dhabhas are roadside eateries, commonly found on the highways in North India, particularly in Punjab. They were formerly frequented by truck drivers, criss-crossing the vast subcontinent in search of a hot, home-cooked meal. Today, dhabhas have sprung up not only on the highways, but also in urban areas as well, and are frequented by a cross section of society. They typically have a limited menu of one dal, one vegetable, and one meat dish served with a variety of breads. The menu varies daily and the food cooked is always fresh because refrigeration is lacking.
Varanasi is one of India's holiest cities, bisected by the Ganges River, the waters of which are said to wash away a lifetime of sins. Many Hindus use the water from the Ganges for cooking and for sacred ceremonies. Breakfast in Varanasi consists of pooris (whole wheat bread that puffs up when deep-fried) or kachoris (whole wheat bread stuffed with split peas or fenugreek greens and deep-fried), eaten with aloo bhaji (potatoes spiced with ginger, cumin, and dried mango powder) or aloo koda (a combination of potatoes and pumpkin). Meals tend to be vegetarian and stick to the following formula: one dal, one or two seasonal vegetables, chapatis or some other form of traditional bread, yogurt, with side dishes of pickles and relish. People in this region are very fond of sweets, and a variety are available year round. These include malai gujiyas (sheets of reduced milk, folded over mounds of sweetened nuts), lal peras (deep red, caramelized sweetmeats), and malpuas (sweetened pancakes).
In Lucknow, a typical breakfast consists of parathas (whole wheat bread plain or stuffed with shredded vegetables and baked on a griddle) or kulcha (flat sour dough bread), eaten with spicy fried liver and andey ki bhujia (scrambled eggs cooked with chopped onions, tomatoes, green coriander, and green chilies).
The average middle-class family will eat a salaan (meat gravy with a seasonal vegetable), a vegetable bhujia (a dry preparation of vegetables), boiled rice, and dal for dinner. The upper-middle-class family will supplement this with a kebab or another meat dish and kheer (a creamy, chilled rice pudding). Occasionally, a korma (meat curry) replaces the salaan, and a biryani or pulao replaces the more ordinary boiled rice. For those with a sweet tooth, the typical summer sweet is a guramba (unripe mangoes cooked with sugar and semolina), and during the winter, rasawal (rice cooked with sugarcane juice). Family dinners tend to be very elaborate. Lucknow is also well known for its kebabs, particularly the kakori kebab, which is made by pounding meat and fat until it becomes a paste. To this poppy seeds, cloves, and other ground spices are added, and the pounding continues until the meat turns almost gluey. This mixture is then wrapped around skewers and grilled over live charcoal.
Rajasthan. Rajasthani cuisine has been influenced by the availability of food resources in the desert state and by the warlike lifestyle of the Maharajas. The food had to be cooked in such a way that it would last for several days when the men went off to war. The scarcity of water gave rise to a cuisine that is cooked with very little or no water. This is especially true of the desert belt, where milk, buttermilk, or ghee is often substituted for water.
The princely families of Rajasthan were obsessed with shikar (hunting) and enjoyed game. Their meat delicacies are incomparable. During the hunts, meats, including poultry, game, and fish, are marinated, skewered, and grilled over live fires to make soola kebabs. Within the ancient palaces, the recipes were a closely guarded secret. Game is cooked in several ways. Rabbit, deer, and boar are prized, and what is not consumed is pickled for later use.
At the other end of the spectrum are the Marwaris, who are strict vegetarians and will not even use garlic and onion in their cuisine. Dried lentils and beans from indigenous plants are the staples of a Rajasthani diet, as wheat and rice do not grow in the desert. Bajra (millet) and makki (maize) are used for making various kinds of bread. The Marwaris use a lot of pulses and gram flour in their cuisine as vegetables are scarce in the desert climate. Moong dal khilni (a dry preparation of lentils, tossed in a mixture of spices), moong godi ki subzi (grape-sized dumplings of green gram, which has been ground to a paste and sun-dried), and gatte ki subzi (rolls of gram flour, steamed and cooked in buttermilk sauce) are delicacies in this region. Other innovations include the use of mango powder as a substitute for tomatoes, and asafoetida, to enhance taste in the absence of garlic and onions. Sweets are also very popular.
Feasting and Fasting
A proverb in North India says "after a fast, a feasting; and after a feasting, a fast." Festivals in India always revolve around food: either through feasting, fasting, or feeding someone. They are numerous, and celebrate harvests and the prevalence of good over evil in stories related to gods and goddesses. Food is an important part of any celebratory event. No festival or celebration is complete without sweets, which are said to ward off evil spirits. In North India, some of the popular festivals are Lohri, Holi, Janmashtami, and Diwali.
Lohri (the winter solstice) is a festival connected to the solar year. It is also celebrated as a harvest festival in many parts of the country. Til laddus (a sweet made from sesame seeds) is distributed among family and friends and eaten throughout North India. Til is considered auspicious and "heating," an important attribute given the cold weather prevalent at that time of year. Another traditional preparation on this day is khichari (a preparation of rice and lentils cooked together).
Holi is the festival of color that celebrates the end of winter and the coming of warm weather. The crops have been cut, threshed, stored, or sold. People of all ages celebrate by throwing color on each other. The festival is also celebrated with special sweets. In the North, families and friends share gujiyas made with khoya and nut stuffing (wheat pastry with a stuffing of milk solids and nuts) and sugar batashas (sugar flakes). Thandai, a chilled, milk-based drink flavored with almonds, cardamom, rose petals, and whole pepper, is synonymous with Holi and is routinely served to all celebrants or guests.
Janmashtami is associated with Krishna. The food prepared on this day is prepared from milk and curds, much beloved by him. A part of the festivities includes filling a large earthen pot with milk, curds, butter, honey, and fruit and suspending this pot from a height of between twenty and forty feet. Sporting young men and boys form human pyramids to bring the pot down and to claim its prized contents. Many families fast on this day, but one meal is allowed. This meal includes fruit, sweets, nuts, and curds.
Diwali, the festival of lights, commemorates the victory of good over evil. It is also the day when Lakshmi, the consort of Vishnu and the goddess of prosperity, is worshiped. Lakshmi and Vishnu are said to dwell in the celestial Kheer Sagar (the ocean of milk). This is the origin of the word kheer, a popular confection of milk and rice that is prepared on almost all festive occasions as an auspicious offering to placate the gods, after which it is served to the priests and guests. The preparation of kheer is a must on Diwali.
Diwali signifies the onset of winter. The harvest is over, and it is time for a change in diet that is more appropriate to the winter season. On this auspicious day, unleavened bread, which is traditionally baked, is fried, perhaps to symbolically display prosperity with the extravagant use of fat. This may also be because during the winter months, the body requires more calories to combat the cold, and richer foods become easier to digest. The affluent eat dried fruits, nuts, and sweetmeats, while others gorge themselves on kheel khilone (puffed rice and candied sugar figurines). There is a great emphasis on sweets, with gifts of sweets exchanged between family, friends, and business associates.
The most elaborate festival has to be Wazwan, a Kashmiri feast, that was introduced to India about five hundred years ago from Central Asia. It is a blend of the culinary styles of the Mughals and Persians who were Muslim on the one hand, and the Kashmiri pundits who are Hindu Brahmins on the other hand. As many as forty courses may be served during Wazwan, with at least twelve and up to thirty courses being nonvegetarian.
There are numerous fasts in India. Each day of the week is dedicated to one of the many Hindu deities. Those with particularly strong religious sentiments fast on the day dedicated to their favorite deity. For example, those who believe in Hanuman will fast on a Tuesday. These fasts require that only one meal, without cereal and salt, be eaten throughout the day, although fruit, nuts, sweets, curds, and liquids are allowed. Muslims in India observe Ramadan and fast for the entire month, rising at 4 A.M. to eat a small meal and breaking their fast at sundown with a full meal, including meat. This fast does not permit the consumption of food or drink throughout the daylight hours.
Another rigorous Hindu fast is karwa chauth. Punjabi women observe this fast for the welfare of their husbands. They wake up before sunrise and eat sargi (food that has been given to them by their mothers-in-law). This includes one pasta item, fruit, sweets, and matthis (fried savory made from flour). Throughout the day, they are not permitted to eat or drink anything until moonrise. Then, after prayers, a full meal is allowed.
Religious Significance of Food
Rice. Rice has an important place in Hindu religious ceremonies. During weddings, it is thrown into the fire because it is the symbol of fertility. When the Hindu bride leaves her maternal home for the last time, she throws fistfuls of rice over her head, signifying the riches of her childhood home. Similarly, when she enters the home of her husband for the first time, she knocks over pots of rice that line the entrance to the house. The extent to which the grains spill across the floor denotes the prosperity the bride will bring to her new family.
Rice is also a traditional dish in the daily menu offerings at the temple. Legend has it that an ancient king dreamed Lord Jagannath had asked him to introduce boiled rice in the menu at the temple. The monks, unwilling to partake of the plain food, even when the king told them of his dream, decided to feed it to a dumb monk first to see if he regained his powers of speech before accepting the rice as temple food. According to legend, not only did the monk retrieve his powers of speech, he also recited all the verses from the Vedas.
Mango. Mango leaves and fruit also have religious connotations. It is said that mango is the favored fruit of Ganesha, the deity who can remove any obstacles. All those who wish to have their desires fulfilled string a garland of mango leaves on their front doors.
Ghee. Because it is considered pure, ghee has great religious significance. It is used in all Hindu ceremonies, burned in every temple lamp, and used during cremation.
Kara Prasad . Associated with the Sikh community of Punjab, an offering (or prasad ) of wheat flour, clarified butter, and sugar in equal amounts is made to the gods symbolizing universal brotherhood. During its preparation, hymns are sung in the food's praise. The prasad is made and served by devotees at the Gurudwara (a Sikh place of worship); it seeks to break down barriers of caste.
See also Asia, Central ; Buddhism ; Civilization and Food ; Hindu Festivals ; Hinduism ; Islam ; Religion and Food ; Rice ; Weddings .
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The Sushruta Samhita is an ancient Ayurvedic text, dating back to 600 b.c.e. This traditional healing practice originated almost five thousand years ago, and its theory influenced Greek and Chinese medicine. According to Ayurvedic theory, the human body is made up of five elements: air (vayu ), water (jala ), fire (agni ), earth (prithvi ), and space (akash ). These combine to form the constitution of the body. Any imbalance in this constitution produces disease, and Ayurveda aims to correct such imbalances by the use of suitable counter-substances.
Food plays an important role in countering the imbalances. There are six basic tastes, which are made up of two elements each: sweet (earth and water), sour (fire and earth), salty (fire and water), bitter (space and air), and astringent (earth and air).
As these elements also form the constitution of the body, the choice of food should be such that it reduces the predominant elements within the body, so that a balance exists between them. When the elements are in equilibrium, one will enjoy good health. However, what may be beneficial for one person might not suit another. Diets therefore vary from person to person, depending on age, sex, climate, and other variables.
The Sushruta Samhita suggests that foods be varied in taste according to the season: spring (pungent), summer (sweet and cold), monsoons (salty and sour), autumn (sweet), and winter (pungent and oily). The use of correct foods in different seasons will presumably prevent the onset of disease.
Snacking in India
Indians love to snack and have a penchant for light, spicy foods. This has given rise to a whole new cuisine called chaats, a generic name for several salty snacks that originated in Delhi. They leave a spicy, lingering taste in the mouth and are usually eaten during mid-morning or at teatime.
Chaats come in a wide variety of savory tidbits, spiced mainly with ajwain (bishop's weed). They are consumed with two chutneys: the fresh and tangy mint chutney and a tamarind-based chutney called sonth. Most chutney preparations are vegetarian and have potatoes and/or lentils as the base. Almost all have some fried components. Chaat tends to be bought rather than made at home, and is eaten at roadside stalls, where it is served in bowls made out of leaves.
The Tandoor and Tandoori Cuisine
Tandoors are clay ovens that are air-dried, embedded in sand or earth, and fired with either wood or charcoal at the bottom. The heat generated is distributed up the sides of the oven. The average temperature within a tandoor ranges between 1,112 to 1,472°F (600 to 800°C). Some tandoors can withstand extreme heat, up to 2,552°F (1,400°C).
Tandoors are most commonly used in Punjab. It is a versatile piece of equipment and can be used to cook meats, kebabs, breads, and dal (lentil purée) with equal ease. Over recent years, there have been variations in the types of tandoors available: from gasoperated models to electric ones. However, in the final analysis, the flavor from the original charcoal-fired tandoor is unsurpassable. Tradition holds that a tandoor in regular use improves the flavor of anything cooked in it, because the heated clay releases a mellow fragrance that permeates the food. In the case of meats, the final taste is a result of the smoke that emanates from the marinade which has dripped on the hot charcoal.
Tandoors are used to cook a variety of meats and breads. The prerequisite for cooking meats in the tandoor is that they must be marinated. The popularity enjoyed by Indian cuisine around the world can be attributed, in large measure, to the tandoor, because it uses very little oil or fat for cooking and the foods thus cooked are moderately spiced.
Prior to use, the tandoor has to be seasoned. This is done by rubbing the inside walls of the tandoor with a paste of spinach or any other green, leafy vegetable. After this has dried, a mixture of mustard oil, buttermilk, jaggery, and salt is applied over the paste. The tandoor is then heated by lighting a small fire at the base, so that the temperature rises gradually. If the temperature rises too fast, the internal walls will crack and it will not be possible to control the temperature. Once heated, the mixture will peel off, and it has to be reapplied three or four times to properly season the tandoor. Finally, the inside walls need to be sprinkled with brine and allowed to dry.
A Wazwan is a Kashmiri feast held to celebrate any occasion. It is a formal affair, and the number of people invited to attend could exceed one thousand, depending on the occasion and the social status of the host.
The Wazwan is a blend of cuisines of the Kashmiri Pundits, Mughals, and Persians. The concept of the Wazwan is more than five hundred years old and has its roots in Central Asia. The central starch for the meal is rice and there are several meat preparations. The Wazwan often includes up to forty courses, of which at least twelve and as many as thirty may be meat-based.
Traditional cooks called Wazas prepare the elaborate meal. Being a Waza is hereditary; it is passed from father to son. Four senior Wazas are required along with twelve assistants to prepare the feast for one thousand guests. If the Wazwan is a dinner, they start cooking at sunrise and continue preparing food until sunset. For a lunch, the Wazas arrive the previous evening and cook through the night.
The planning of the feast can take days and the cooking many hours. It begins early in the morning and continues throughout the day, with a whole retinue of people including butchers and assistants working to prepare the meal. There are no shortcuts in the preparation of food. The sheep are slaughtered using the halal method (bleeding the animal) on the day of the feast. Different cuts of meat are used for different preparations: ribs for tubbak maz (ribs simmered with black cardamom, turmeric, and salt, and fried in clarified butter); marrow bones, neck, and rump as well as the breast for rogan josh (meat curry simmered in yogurt with red kashmiri chilies and saffron); various cuts of meat for seekh kebabs (minced meat ground with spices and grilled on skewers); and meat from the backbone and tail for aab ghosht (meat cooked in a milky sauce). All the fat trimmed from the meat is saved for the preparation of gushtaba and rishta kebabs. These are prepared by pounding the meat and fat separately to a paste. To every kilogram of meat, 250 grams of fat are added, and the pounding continues with the addition of black cardamom and other spices. These are then formed into smooth round kebabs (a quarter pound for each gushtaba and half that size for each rishta kebab ) and simmered in huge cauldrons with yogurt, whole spices, and salt.
The vessels used for cooking are like the large, flat copper platters used to serve the food; many of them have a traditional chinar (maple) leaf design on them. The guests sit on the floor around the plates: four guests to each plate. The Wazas serve the food: In addition to all the meat preparations, there is also haak (a green, leafy vegetablelike spinach), tomato paneer (cream cheese cooked with tomatoes), various chutneys like green chili and walnut, as well as plain yogurt. Gushtaba marks the end of the meal. The sweets generally served include sooji ka halwa (a semolina sweet cooked with clarified butter) and phirni (a rice flour and milk dessert). Finally, hot cups of kahwa (green kashmiri tea flavored with saffron and cardamom and garnished with sliced almonds) are poured from samovars to aid in the digestion of the feast.