(Kashmir Reader edition of April 28th published a front page story moaning the fact no one in Kashmir proposed a geographical identity (GI) to a product originating from the Valley. The story got a prompt response for a proposal not for the Deptt of Industries, but for the Deptt of Tourism and Cultural Affairs. The proposal here under can be further pushed now. –Editor)
Potato also known as ‘Aloo’ entered Kashmir not earlier than about 400 years ago. It came to India via the Portuguese traders who made their first appearance at the end of the 1590s. The first reference to an Aloo preparation was recorded in Ajmere when Sir Thomas Roe sat down to feast in the house of a local Amir. Therefore the Kashmiri cuisine of Dum Aloo cannot be an ancient vegetable dish as some would claim, but a new addition in the food of both Hindus and Muslims in the Valley.
I am not suggesting this feature to be kept in the pages of this newspaper in the magazine section because by today Dum Aloo has acquired a very distinct image associated with Kashmiri culture and which is now threatened with adulteration by tinkering with other cuisine cultures in the country. We need now some sort of intervention by the State to ensure that Dum Aloo as we have known in the past decades, stays in its pure form of recipe and preparation.
There is no record to suggest who was the first person who cooked a dish of Dum Aloo and elevated it from its lowly status as a poor man’s food. But obviously, that gentleman had a lot of time at his disposal, which led the dish to be prepared at leisure and in stages. While the whole process is rewarding for the host, the long process is now the cause of attempts to tinker with the recipe and find short cuts. There cannot be any short cuts in the preparation of Dum Aloo for the feast; either you have it or you don’t. Do not mess with this Kashmiri cuisine!
Earlier last month the J&K Department of Tourism organised at Jagti Camp, Jammu, a festival of Kashmiri Pndit cuisine, crafts and music. Among the many varieties of food displayed was Dum Aloo. I have an objection to keeping Dum Aloo as a Hindu vegetable dish. It is a Kashmiri cuisine and synonymous with the whole region of the two Union Territories. It was obvious that those who organised the event were poor in their knowledge of food of the region and assumed it to be special to the Pandit community. In fact, the recipe used in the preparation is common to both the communities within the Valley.
A new problem that has arisen is that this vegetable preparation is now being mishandled by the Punjabi, Haryanivis, Rajasthani and UPiite cooks who have starting labelling the dish at feasts as such, but created their version of the meal which does no credit to its origin. Public interest in partaking this food took a flying start as an addition in Indian homes when Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley were pushed out and got scattered in various big and small urban centers to start a new life. Potato was already available in plenty; what was now required was it to turn it into a new Kashmiri dish with a distinctive look, taste and smell. It took one bite into the true Dum Aloo and the eater got trapped forever to stay loyal to this preparation.
The many banquet businesses ever seeking new ways to lure their clients began to offer genuine Kashmiri preparations made by Kashmiri hands from poor Muslim families who also resettled themselves because they could not fend for themselves in the Valley due to long-duration lock-downs. Many of them came down to Amritsar, Chandigarh, Dehra Doon and Delhi for employment. They also brought along their family samovars and offered the alternate digester for meat preparation, called Kahwa tea. Pandit families began to offer single-dish preparations to the banquet which again found ready takers, especially Methi Chaman. As more Kashmiris resettled themselves in the plains, they brought along the seeds for Haaq vegetables and sowed them in farms in Haryana. The small crops were sold out within hours of their arrival, and now Kashmiris took the cultivation of Haaq vegetable in a bigger way. The banquets then experimented with Haaq-saag but this did not attract a stampede.
For the Kashmiri Pandits, all the new arrivals in food made their stay in the plains less miserable as they started having their own kind of food available at hand and also shared with their neighbours. But my first concern was still the Dum Aloo which was now facing an onslaught of adulteration. The cuisine preparation is divided into two main stages. The first stage is the selection of young Himalayan potatoes of medium size, cleaning them, then boiling them to make their skin soft. Once this is complete, the first process of peeling of the skin begins, which will now encroach upon the cook’s time. In my estimate, each person partaking the preparation should share about four potatoes per head. The peeling process can be shared by other members in the family to reduce the cooking time. Once potatoes are peeled, then each piece is subject to being pierced using tooth- picks repeatedly. This is the crucial stage where the first short cut is attempted. The non-Kashmiri cook will pierce the potato six or seven times and then move to the next piece to repeat the process. That spells disaster. Each potato requires to be pierced about three-dozen times or more. This is the first time-consuming stage of the preparation.
The next stage is to put all the pierced potatoes in a large boiling vessel filled with oil and let the whole material be boiled to a dark brown colour. That takes time as we wait for the potatoes to slowly simmer in oil until they lose all their water inside and begin to float in the liquid. During the time of frying the potato, the roghan of the preparation is made using the normal masalas meant for meat dishes, plus a little more curd so that the roghan acquires a tangy taste. Now this roghan is poured over the deep brown potatoes and turned around so that the roghan covers each of the potato pieces. We add more oil if necessary, add heat in the furnace and then add water and then put the cooking vessel on slow heat or ‘dum’ for the oil to enter the potato shell with the masala ingredients. By the end of this ritual, the aloo has blown itself beyond its original size, is soft and ready to be served.
The total time taken can vary from four to six hours, and so shorts cuts are made. Three years ago I had written to the State Department of Agriculture suggesting they move an application to get Dun Aloo preparation a geographical identity (GI). Nothing happened. I repeated my exercise with the local Pandit sabhas in Jammu to do likewise, but they too could not take it up. I would infer, they too did not take the case seriously. I am just a Kashmiri, but not a Kashmiri cook professionally. I like my aloo dish and a badly cooked Dum Aloo can get me into a foul mood in seconds. The person who cooks the bad Dum Aloo dish then faces an interrogation to find where the correct procedure was not followed. I forget the niceties of the occasion. This dish has to get its due respect. The best way to ensure the recipe is to get special cooking classes to be organised in women colleges, in social clubs and special private classes where the is procedure taught. If the French can protect their cooking, why we Indians are so lazy and careless with what we believe is our special food culture?
—The writer is Chairman, Vitasta Healthcare Trust, Jammu