A date with harissa

Sameer Rashid Bhat

Kashmir is in the lap of winters with harsh chill and some old-type snow. There’s a lull around as one dares to stretch out his vision. As per routine, the schools are shut and students are more likely seen around their coaching centres with hands in pockets and their breath visible in this Himalayan cold. Me and my friends are no exception to this lot. The tight class-schedule hardly gives us any time to think about some recreations and enjoyments, with the short days of winters making it even more difficult.

While these times prevail, a friend who suggests some wintry delights seizes the moment. Even if you don’t want to join in for the fear of cold, your heart and brain tempt your tongue to utter an affirmative remark. And when somebody particularizes the wintry delights with the mere pronouncing of “Harissa”, if you are a lover of this delicacy, you can’t save any curiosity. For those who are incognizant of Harissa, it is a culinary art that is prepared by combining mutton with rice, some native spices and heating and stirring the concoction for hours together until it becomes mushy and pasty. This paste is then poured over with hot oil or Ghee to give it a special taste.

We planned a ‘Harissa break’ from our daily class routine and waited eagerly for the day. A few attempts to have the delight before the planned day failed, ergo making us go real crazy for it. True they say, the more the waiting, the more the pleasure in attaining. On the last weekday, after our early morning class we headed to the hub of Harissa – the heart of Srinagar, the downtown. Having been putting up in the so-called ‘posh areas’ of the city, we soon lost the trajectory of the congested downtown that we had made in our mind and hence were compelled to ask for directions from some old, bitten by cold, shopkeepers.

Finally, after the soughting of directions and carefully scanning each lane for a ‘Harissa Ghar’, we met one in Fateh Kadal, our destination to quench our appetite of this wintry speciality of Kashmir. Harissa Ghar is a special shop mostly dark, less or almost not- ventilated, walls laden with smoke, and the latter continuously coming out of the shop via an outlet; a shop that is meant exclusively for the plying of Harissa. These shops find their admirers only during winters while remaining shut and silent for the rest of the year. You wouldn’t even notice that you passed by a Harissa Ghar, such is their state of being in the cruel-for-them summers. The shop that we went into was pure example of the above description. The smoke choked our breath, we coughed hard, tears rolled down our cheeks and soon found ourselves adapted to the conditions therein. We sat down cross legged, something that reminded us of the Kashmiri Wazwan parties where people eat together in quadruples, by the walls of the room and waited for the Harissa-Walla (shopkeeper) to serve. All my eyes were upon his every move – how he put his hand into the tandoor (cylindrical clay oven) and fetched Harissa in a small cup. He had to make efforts to get the sticky Harissa off the cup and serve it onto our plates. Some ‘spicy’ foodstuff and boiling Desi Ghee was poured on the Harissa, filming over and filling the room with sweet and dulcet aroma that really had me in some never-never room with sweet and dulcet aroma that really had me in some never-never land. Everything was art.

Our non-sense laughter and talks, unique to every friend circle, stopped on the spur of the moment as we soon got our share and began relishing Harissa on a ‘Kandur Czout’ (local bread) without caring about anything else. The combination of Harissa and ‘Kandur Czout’ is not subject to any verbal description for describing it would sure require some alien language. Couple of our friends who had not tasted this dainty treat before were long to be found licking their fingers. I, particularly, left not a single bit of Harissa on my plate, wiping it off repeatedly with my pieces of bread. The serious feasting and stillness prevailing therein was broken by a very dear friend of ours by his rib-tickling queries and by a photogenic friend who wanted to have a click with the Harissa and thus a short, blurry photo-shoot followed. Amid it, texting a friend about this experience yielded a simple reply ‘Yummy’ and that’s what this tasty-delight could the least be linked up with.