Saturday, January 9, 2016

Baking and Breaking The World of Kashmiri Breads

Bread is such an important aspect of survival for a human. After water, if anything a human being craves for, is nothing but bread. Over thousand years of evolution of homo sapiens and a subsequent development of new cultures on this planet, the bread has taken various forms. There’s no other region which has a rich history and variety of breads the way Europe has. As I read somewhere that Germany alone boasts 1300 varieties of breads and pastries (I so vividly remember the strudel Christopher Waltz’s character eats in the movie, Inglorious Basterds). So famous is Italy’s Focaccia, France’s Baguette, Danish Rugbroad or German’s Bauernbrot. Middle East too has its own contribution to this ancient recipe. The famous pita, the supremely tasty lavash, sumptuous taftan or our own hearty naan.

Being a human being (not just Being Human J), I too developed craving for the bread from my childhood. Though Indians are not heavy eaters of leavened bread and generally prefer flat unleavened breads, I loved the freshly baked soft white bread or the tasty buns with my evening tea. The love further blossomed with introduction to pizzas and garlic breads. My curiosity for breads is increasing always. And I was in for a surprise when I married my better half who’s a Kashmiri Pandit. Kashmiri Pandits also share my love for breads. So it is easy for me to write about the Kashmiri breads.

A typical dekko of a Kashmiri Bakery, Nagrota, Jammu
A Kashmiri breakfast would never be complete without breads, that too the baker’s breads. Every Kashmir√≠’s home would be situated in the vicinity of a bakery or vice versa makes more sense J. I think both are inseparable entities. The bakery in Kashmir is known as ‘Kandur’ (pronounced as kaan-duur). The owner of a kaandur is considered to be blessed by the Kashmiri saint, Lal Ded who once took shelter in an oven of a kaandur. This is as per a KP legend. I am not too sure about the legend of Lal Ded  but I am sure that the owner of kaandar/kaandur is blessed by thousands of souls including me.

The Baker in The Kaandur (Please check the red hot oven and the divine light from the window in the background !)
A fresh bread with a cup of piping hot tea on a cold winter morning in Kashmir/Jammu is a luxury anyone can afford. That’s where the blessings start to pour in. It’s not an ordinary job to run a kaandur and meet expectations of its various patrons. The oven (that’s tandoor, dude!) is lighted up very early in the morning. The knuckles come hard of leavened or unleavened dough to start the day. Interestingly, the kaandur keeps on changing the breads with almost every passing couple of hours (Please correct me if I am wrong since that’s my experience)

Whenever I am in Jammu, my morning starts with an endearingly refreshing cup of Kahwa. To date, there has been nothing which is able to beat the subtle mixture of various aromas in the simplest forms like the way Kahwa offers. And obviously, it doesn’t need an accompaniment as your all senses are awakened with every sip of this delicately beautiful clear tea (but some people prefer Kulcha, KASHMIRI…SAY…KASHMIRI Kulcha, with it, I think it’s just a function of hunger). Here, kaandur is saved from the early morning raiders as the he silently works his hands on the dough to make the first batch of lavaas and girdas ready.

Kashmiris love their tea the way Punjabis love their whisky. (Ouch, Okay!) Kashmiris love their tea like the way fish loves water (Sounds good…would the first line be chopped?). Tea is an integral part of every Kashmiri household. The day starts with it and most possibly, you may end the day drinking tea if you are willing. I guess half of the cooking fuel consumption should be dedicated to tea in a Kashmiri home (and rest goes for those delicious slow cooked dishes which I relish a lot… I mean gobbling 4-5 dum aloos). Why I am I stressing so much on tea when the write up has to be about bread. Bread is the best accompaniment of tea. J

As I mentioned, the first round of milky tea (mostly the pink nun chai) doesn’t descend through esophagus unless you hold girda or lavasa in other hand. Girda or just czot (pronounced as ‘chot’) is a flatbread similar to the roti we may get in plains in India but is prepared using maida (refined flour). Freshly warm (or warmly fresh) and smeared with table butter, it becomes ‘no one can eat just one’ affair in the morning. My personal capacity can be enhanced to 5-6 girdas on any given morning. Kashmiris generally prefer the nun chai (salty pink tea, ‘nun’ stands for salt in Kashmiri) with girda. Over the time (7 years to be precise), I have developed the taste for ‘nun chai’ but my fundamental structure prefers to enjoy these breads with sweet milky tea (generally labelled as ‘Lipton Chai’, what a brand recall of Hindustan Unilever!) Girdas/czots/rotis, as I call them the first batch of breads are consumed around 9 in the morning.
Girdas... No one can eat just one (Not even two also)

Lavasa is a fairer brother/sister of Girda. Girda is generally baked to golden crispiness while lavasa is kept slightly thin but have numerous blisters on surface. I personally prefer girdas over lavasas as the slightly stretchable texture is not something which I enjoy with my tea. However, I believe (and as I read), lavasas are the perfect breads for kebabs or veg dishes like paneer tikkas and chole. Needless to say, you have to apply butter on the surface of lavasa to enjoy your dishes to impermissible limits J.

Kashmir, as many of you know, is a valley situated between the beautiful Karakoram and Pir Panjaal range of Himalayas making it one of the most beautiful terrains in the world. It is bestowed with a very balmy weather which becomes very cold (Oh..that ‘Chilai Kalan’) in winters. The guts of people here are so suitable to consume butter and refined flour that we poor mortals from plains who complain after eating few pies of a pizza will always be at awe at both, usage and capability of kashmiris to digest these two commodities. The situation is worse especially if you are staying in a city like Mumbai where the weather never helps you build an appetite. It brings me to tears (of course of JOY) to see people enjoying so much of leavened bread and butter in the hills.

As the day starts crawling towards noon (I really mean it, with so much of butter in your belly, the day actually crawls), we are introduced to another set of amazing breads. This is the time for the famous tilwor and that not so famous but equally delectable ‘Katlam’. Tilwor or Chochwor as it is commonly known in the valley is similar to bagel bread. One of the the most attractive in the Kashmiri section of breads. Traditionally, a good friend of nun chai, tilwor when fresh out of kaandur can give a run to the best bagels anywhere on this planet. Highly recommended on a cold afternoon with the very Kashmiri nun chai (Did I forget to mention ‘lot of butter’, eh?).
Freshly baked Tilwors, make way, you Bagel!
Katlam is my all time favorite bread. It is similar to what we call ‘Khari’ biscuits which we get in different bakeries in Mumbai. The ones from Yazdani Bakery in Fort are probably the best I have come across in Mumbai. So Katlam has that multi layered personality and all the layers are crunchy in peking order as your teeth go on biting the layers. Even the relatively soft core is so so delicious that you may want to skip your lunch over multiple cups of nun chai/ lipton chai along with continuous supply of Katlams. However, unlike the khari biscuits, the katlams tend to lose the crunchiness over hours. The khari biscuits can retain crunch over days. Come what may, that’s my personal favorite bread from the kaandur.

Katlams and Tilwors...Awesome twosome combo for your late morning tea!
Bakirkhani is also an everyday bread. We may call it a big bro of Katlam. Slightly puffed, layered, crunchy (I am tired of saying that they go well with any Kashmiri tea and this time please include Kahwa if you wish to… but I prefer Kahwa as a solitary drink). Bakirkhani itself though is not unique for Kashmir. Available from Bangladesh to Uttar Pradesh to Pakistan, the recipe may vary little for every region. A preparation with clarified butter (ghee) will give you an accompaniment for the savory dishes prepared on special occasions.

And how can I forget to write about Kulcha! No, no, not your typical kulcha. This too is a baker’s bread but little firm and you can’t stuff chhole into it. Again exclusively goes with tea (haa, I give up now, exclusively with ‘nun chai’).

Kashmiri Kulchas...for Rs 3 to Rs 5 per piece is an excellent bargain!
The breads I talked about are integral part of daily life of a Kashmiri. It is difficult for a Kashmiri to survive without tea and bread. So girda, lavasa, tilwor, katlam, kulchas and bakarkhani always come to rescue for him/her. However, there are few breads which are prepared for special occasions like weddings, new arrival (not the movie, man!).

Krippe or Krip is dear to me. My first encounter with it took place at my wedding in Jammu. My relatives and friends who accompanied me for the wedding told me that they were enjoying Krip with their tea. All I could do was to react with a smile as I had to observe a ritualistic fast till the wedding was complete (technically late afternoon around 4 p.m.). This tiny round bread wins your heart (and may clog arteries also) with its flaky structure, goes well with….. (Please fill in the blanks now). We carried loads and loads of krip on our way back to Pune from Jammu and how voraciously we finished it before we reached Pune. JJJ. Another strong contender who accompanied us during the trip and no one dared to mess with it was the roth. Roth is a bulky bread laden with dry fruits and coconut with a sweet tinge. It is an exclusive bread for grand occasions like wedding and child births. I loved it dunking it in warm milk and gobbling it up.  

Roth (Yes, the one that looks like Pizza...sweet and mighty!)
Gyevchot which literally translates as the ghee roti is obviously made using ghee (clarified butter). It has a fluffy, soft texture with surface baked to golden hue. I earlier thought it to be an everyday bread but alas, it has become a rarity. I went on inquiring about Gyevchot last time I was in Jammu and the kaandur man told me that it is made on order.

Gyevchot with Kashmiri Nun Chai as well as sweet milky tea!
Sheermal is one bread I really love to dig my teeth into. And surprise, it need not be accompanied with tea. It is a sweet bread prepared using refined flour, milk, saffron and dates and has its own flavor. I am not too sure if sheermal is an exclusively Kashmiri bread because I find numerous mentions about this bread in northern UP. But since the place of origin for this bread is Iran, Kashmir will obviously be connected. Mildly sweet, prepared using date flavoured milk this one is one of my favourite companions on travel. One can eat them without any accompaniment. It’s like a delicious biscuit. Crisp, crumbly and flavorful.

Rate List outside a Kaandur in Nagrota, Jammu.
The distinctive nature of Kashmiri culture also influences its cuisine. Now-a-days, there’s a lot of curiosity over Kashmiri dishes and I could see many restaurants serving exclusively Kashmiri cuisine in the metropolitan area. The tourist flow is increasing to Kashmir and hopefully, it will keep on getting better and better every year. All I wish is that the beauty would always be perpetual with no more scars. So next time you go to Kashmir, definitely visit a kaandur and raise a Bread (not the toast) to the peace, prosperity and longevity of Kashmir. 

NOTE - All the pics in this post are originally clicked by me. I would be happy to share them with anyone who needs it but request to take my permission please!)