Friday, April 7, 2017

A Kashmiri Interlude at Khyen Chyen

Kashmiri cuisine is one of the most delicate and accomplished cuisines one can try. It has a richness and unique interplay of subtle textures and flavours. A predominantly non vegetarian cuisine, with emphasis on lamb, this cuisine also uses distinct flavours of saunf(fennel) and saunth(dry ginger). Due to the weather, many vegetables that we are used to were not available there, and the cuisine relies heavily on local ingredients such as Kashmiri red chillies, haak, lotus stem, knol khol, turnips and few spices such as whole clove, cinnamon etc. Everything is cooked mostly in mustard oil. Kashmiri cuisine indeed uses limited ingredients into a high art of ingenuity and delicacy.

Further Kashmiri cuisine can be divided into two styles: Kashmiri Muslim cuisine focussing on Wazwan and the Kashmiri Pandit cuisine. It was to sample the former that I ventured into Khyen Chyen at Cross Point Mall recently. Believe me I had gone with reasonable expectations. I have been disappointed by many so called Kashmiri restaurants in places such as Hauz Khas earlier, so I went in an adventurous mood.

The alluring facade of the restaurant in Cross Point Mall, ground floor, right across Galleria is rather inviting. It is understated, yet intriguing. Enter the restaurant and vibrant and melodious Kashmiri music fills the air with pleasant initiation. The exposed brick work walls, wooden trellis work, hanging lamps and copper tableware build an earthy aura of a faraway land. 'Khyen Chyen' in Kashmiri means 'Khana Peena' alluding to the popular Kashmiri greeting wherein when you meet someone especially a lady such as an aunt or mother, she would ask you if you have had food first. The name itself shows what prominence food has in a Kashmiri's life.

Delicate aromas waft from the kitchen and without much further ado we dive into the menu. It is quite an elaborate menu. I have never seen so many Kashmiri dishes listed on a single menu before this. Restauranteur Nasir Andrabi who is there to help us select personally, is someone who is passionate about showcasing Kashmiri culture to his guests. He has a team of 14 chefs/cooks from Kashmir and they do not believe in compromising on the food quality in any way. Everything is done the traditional way, no matter how laborious or painstaking it may seem. Kashmiri cuisine is of course a lot about getting the right cuts of meat, pounding meat for hours by hand with mustard oil to get that perfect quality of mince and playing around with 3-4 ingredients to achieve that perfect balance. There is no onion or garlic used in this food, so the focus remains on the meat, not the masalas. If at all, Kashmiri onions called praan are used. Khyen Chyen procures most of its ingredients directly from Kashmir, and thus the authenticity of taste. 

We are two of us so we go for a selection of the best and the most popular dishes which would normally be served in a wazwan. Nasir tells me that they serve wazwan to a minimum of four people on a huge Tarami, which is like a community eating and has to be shared by 4 or 8 people. There can be upto 56 courses in that feast. Meanwhile a steward assigned to our table comes with the traditional Kashmiri Tash Naer, a copper 'surahi' with a basin, to wash our hands with hot water. The mood is set for a memorable meal. After all Kashmiri food is best eaten with your hands.

Tabak Maaz
We start with Tabak Maaz and Kashmiri Seekh Kebab. We debate for a while between what is better Kabargaah or Tabak Maaz, Nasir convinces us to go for Tabak Maaz, also explaining the difference very well. The Tabak Maaz is indeed spectacular, crisp and brown on the outside and tender inside. The seekh kebab too is good, which we savour with an assortment of three chutneys- radish, onion and mint chutney. There is a lovely pickle of carrot, radish and turnips with a predominant ajwain flavour that provides the perfect relish.

Perfect Goshtaba
(LtoR) Marchwangan Korma, RoganJosh, Methi Maaz and Rice

In a wazwan the main course always starts with Methi Maaz, small bites of almost minced meat with fenugreek. We pour it over our steaming hot rice and choose to eat with our hands, which is the best way to eat this food. Next comes the Marchwangan Korma, a fiery red curry with large pieces of mutton. Then there is the inevitable Rogan Josh which is surprisingly not red in colour. Nasir explains that this is how a rogan josh is cooked. There is no 'ratanjot' used as many recipes would have us believe. I can see a predominant use of turmeric. There is cockscomb that is used, that gives it a special aroma and colour, but it is neither red, not oily. The mutton is so tender, I could write an ode to it. Undoubtedly their best dish.

Rogan Josh

Further we get a stunning bowl of a kofta in yellow curry called the Lahaabdar Kofta, followed by the famous Gushtaba in mild white yakhni. The meat as one can see is plump and almost bounces back when you press it. That is the true test of a good Rista and Gushtaba, Nasir says. How it is minced or pounded makes all the difference to the texture. The best part is that although on the whole the meal is pretty sumptuous, each one of the dishes individually is light. There is almost no oil floating on top. In that regard, Nasir again describes that the Muslim Kashmiri food is less likely to be oily as compared to Kashmiri Pandit food. There is an equally elaborate vegetarian part of the menu, however on this visit we did not try any. Maybe next time.

Service throughout is very courteous and timely. The staff is well spoken and well informed. It is a heartwarming meal that can literally dispel all your worries and envelop you in a cosy sense of well being. Just when you think you can't have anything more, there is the tantalising temptation of a perfectly set phirni, a semolina and milk dessert with the delicate crunch of poppy seeds on top. The #beautiful #samovar from which #fragrant #kehwa is served at khyenchyen is also a mini engineering marvel with an inbuilt coal reservoir. Nasir Andrabi who is committed to keeping Kashmiri traditions alive, shows us how it functions. Part of the charm of the meal was his personal touch in everything and the zeal to share all about #kashmiricuisine and #culture with us! 

It is not a meal but a meal experience. He told us at length about what Wazwan is and showed all the interesting paraphernalia and equipment that goes with it such as tarami, kashmiri knives and special hammer shaped mortar and pestle. The kehwa is finally poured into elegant cups with chinar leaf shaped saucers! Nasir tells us that kehwa acts as an appetiser if had before a meal, and as a digestive after a meal. It is indeed a fine cup of kehwa. You take a sip and feel all that is heavy and daunting, floating away into thin air. Then all I need is a Shikara and Shammi Kapoor!

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