Sarposh, A Kashmiri Oasis in Bengaluru

An elegant table setting at Sarposh, a speciality restaurant in Bengaluru focussing on Kashmiri cuisine

What prompted you to set up Sarposh? Kashmir lies literally at the other end of the country from Bengaluru. Popular knowledge about it is superficial and people’s perceptions of the place are coloured by mainstream news which paints a picture that is far from encouraging.

Kashmir is perceived through the binaries represented in popular perceptions of a paradise — or the other extreme. But there is an entire world in between, filled with ordinary people. I grew up during the peak of the militancy while there were complex events playing out around us. Food was a focal point of life. My grandmother would, on an impulse, fill a samovar with noon chai,
pack some kebabs, pick up breads from the local bakers and take us on a picnic, despite the roadblocks and tensions around us. When I re-located to Bengaluru, I suddenly became aware that the nuances of my culture and food were inaccessible to other people. I realised that this change of location was permanent and I wanted to feel connected to where I came from. What began as a one-time culinary and cultural event for dislocated Kashmiris in Bengaluru went on to become a catering enterprise via a Cloud Kitchen. The challenge was that we were sourcing all our raw materials from Kashmir, which made it impossible to price the food competitively. Also, I very much wanted to present a complete dining experience that presented the cultural background to the food. So Sarposh was born.

Above left: Rista, a saffron flavoured dish of mutton meatballs in a thin, non-spicy red
curry. Above right: A traditional trami of assorted kebabs

You have chosen to present a menu drawn from the classic wazwan of Kashmir but like many localized culinary traditions, it suffers from misrepresentation. Please tell us a little about it.

Wazwan is the zenith of Kashmiri hospitality. It’s a community meal, a feast that can extend to as many as 72 dishes, with the basic minimum being seven. It’s a closely guarded tradition carried forward by a specific community of people, generally the Sheenaspeaking people of Gurez. It’s an allmale affair, with the cooks, vendors, everyone involved being male. Even the interface at the wedding or event is undertaken by a senior male relative, such as an uncle, who takes care of all the negotiations and decisions. As a woman, I have pushed the barriers and entered an exclusively male world, no doubt astonishing many people! My team is from Kashmir and I ensured that I got the best professional cooks for Sarposh. A wazwan feast is typically meatheavy. The quality of the meat has to be the very best, with no room for compromise; how the lamb is fed and reared is of the greatest importance. The preparation of the dishes is very specific and quite mathematical. The
calculation is that one lamb gives you five trami (the copper platter on which the meal is served). This is what gives you the essentials of the wazwan, such as sheek kabab; tabak maaz (lamb ribs); methi maaz; rista; gushtaba (lamb meatballs in a yoghurt base); roghan josh; mirchi quorma; aab ghosth (lamb in a milk-based gravy), and dani phol (lamb shanks).

The food is served on the trami over a mound of white rice, the platter divided into quarters, so each diner has their own eating space. Other dishes follow and the meal concludes with marchewangan kormae (mutton korma) and gushtabae yakhin. The base of the gravies is formed by praan, the distinctively flavoured Kashmiri shallots. Onion, ginger and garlic are not used in wazwan, rendering the flavours quite unique.

Similar to praan, there are several ingredients that are distinctive and terroir specific, bringing defining flavours to a dish. What are these? You have put in enormous efforts to source these ingredients for your kitchen.

Kashmiri praan has a very short season and grows in specific areas. It looks like a cross between a garlic pod and a spring onion, but has a very pungent flavour and strong smell. It is chopped and fried in desi ghee to preserve it. Kashmiri Pandits use asafoetida in place of praan. Onions used as a substitute give a sweetness instead of the distinguishing pungency of praan. Then there’s cumin zeera from Draas and Gurez, both very strong and flavourful; the former is thicker, while the one from Gurez is fine, but both are distinctive.

Gushtaba, meatballs in a yoghurt based gravy, delicately flavoured with cloves, bay leaf, cardamom and cinnamon

We have benefited by setting up a supply network from amongst our own staff, since everyone has a little farm or garden. One of our managers is from Pampore, where the best saffron in the world is grown, so we source our supplies from his farm. This year I was there at harvest time, to harvest the saffron myself. Almonds and walnuts are sourced in the same way and dried mint, an important herb, comes from my family’s kitchen garden. It is tended, sun-dried and hand-powdered by an old member of staff. Although dried spices are generic, and spice powders are available across the country, there are companies that process and manufacture spices specifically for wazwans, and I source from them. The staff are deeply involved in the process of maintaining quality and there are days when they reject produce which they consider to have dropped below standard, even slightly. This would never be possible in a typical commercial kitchen.

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Has the search for sources to supply you with the best ingredients also led to the creation of relationships with established growers?

It takes a lot of effort to get the right ingredients. Take the famous Kashmiri red chilli, for instance. I discovered that a lot of farmers were growing red chillies by sourcing Byadagi chilli seeds from North Karnataka, and passing them off as Kashmiri chillies. I contacted the horticultural department for seeds, experimented with them in our own kitchen garden and then got in touch with farmers in South Kashmir at Pulwama, where the best chillies grow. We went to women in the villages who have kitchen gardens and, after some persuasion, convinced them to grow chillies for us. We now have a collective of over 500 farmers; some of them also grow saag (leafy greens), pumpkins and local vegetables. We source a lot from them. We also have a family farm which is being developed to supply the tables at Sarposh. Right now, it’s the season for Kashmiri Rainbow Trout, which comes to us directly from my father’s farm.

Aab Ghosth, a lightly spiced mutton curry cooked in milk

You have just pulled off a spectacular Spring Menu, which tied in the last of the sun-dried vegetable dishes of winter with the first of the tender spring greens. How did you decide on this complete departure from the meat-centric wazwan? And even more unusual, it is a cuisine that is exclusively home cooked, not found anywhere outside of Kashmiri homes.

Although Kashmiri food is always associated with a meat-centric menu, there is a wide range of vegetarian dishes. In autumn we begin drying vegetables to use them through the winter, adding them to lentils, eggs, or chicken. I wanted to present some typical vegetable-based dishes. Haakh batta — greens and rice — is the most basic expression of the food we eat, yet it can be very flavourful and satisfying. Mallow leaves with garlic (Talith sochal); red amaranth with Kashmiri spices (woste haakh) and stewed, pounded dandelion leaves (dagith handh) are some of the other greens we served, along with stewed spinach (wazzeh palak) and paneer cooked with spring onions (putche gande te tschaman).

Dried vegetables such as dried turnips cooked with red kidney beans (gogje areh te razmah), sundried tomato chutney (ruwangan hatche tchyot), dried eggplants with tamarind (tcock wangan hatche); dried bottle gourd in curd and mint (ale hatche yakhin) are all unique in the sense that you would not find them on a typical restaurant menu. The appreciation the dishes received was overwhelming.

What are some of the other dishes on the menu?

Methi maaz, seekh kabab and tabak maaz feature regularly. Some of the other dishes include dani phol; wazae kokur (waza chicken) and shaemi kabab. We have added vegetarian dishes such
as tamatar paneer (a chunky slab of paneer cooked in a mint-based gravy and tomatoes): wazae palak (spinach greens cooked traditionally with tiny rista balls, but made vegetarian without adding the ristas), and a classic wazae dum oulv (potatoes pierced to allow the spices to permeate and then slow-cooked).

The Spring Menu is a turning point, a departure from the main idea of how you thought you would present Kashmiri food, and more importantly, how it would be received. What has Sarposh restaurant come to mean to you?

There has definitely been an evolution in what the restaurant means. Beyond the food, it’s an expression of who I am and where I come from; an expression of my identity, an extension of my
home. Fourteen crafts from Kashmir are represented in the décor. I had the craftsmen come here and work on the details. I have placed family heirlooms in this space to showcase the best of
Kashmir. There are books for those who wish to know more about the culture and history of the place – if you just want to have a great meal, that is also there for you. It’s an expression of what Kashmir is, and where the narrative resides with me, as a Kashmiri.