Facing the Dal Lake near Chaar Chinar, Zeba Bibi sits next to her wares under a chestnut tree. She has pumpkin, Nadru (lotus) stalks and pods, walnuts, Bamsoot (Quinn’s Apple) and a few more things. The fields from where she harvests pumpkin and leafy greens for the city lie behind.
A little ahead sits chestnut and walnut seller Gulrez and his father. A narrow stream flows by. The tall trees give them the needed shade. On the green grass, they have spread out their ware, enticing customers to buy fresh.
Facing the fencing of the lake, Zeba points to the lotus that grows all over. Some of those stalks are lying with her. The pods would be split. The green seeds will be pushed out from them, boiled, coarsely mashed, and made into a curry. The lake that stands in the middle of the city is like bejeweled crown – abuzz with people, birds, fish, plants, lotus, and water lily and a lot more.
The Mughal era gardens of Shalimar Bagh, Nishat Bagh, Chashm e Shahi flank the lake. Shalimar Bagh’s cascading waterfalls and fountains, built by Jahangir in 1619, is linked to Dal waters through a canal. A shikara takes you to Nishat Bagh, lying on the eastern side of Dal. A labyrinth of channels feed Dal as well as take from it.
This ecosystem supports many like Zeba. From the grass that feeds the animals, to the lotus, lilies and algae that harbour a multitude of insects, amphibians, fish and birds, to the umpteen houseboats anchored by families that provide hospitality to the tourists from the world over. The floating houseboats have kitchen gardens on silt patches that has been accumulating for decades.
Dal is the centrifugal force that has kept together this city with a large agrarian population. Post monsoon, water recedes, and rice and other cereals is grown -- and once winter sets in, like all good hibernating communities, artisan families in the city gather around with Kahwa and Sigri to start with their embroidery and famed walnut wood carving with gusto.
The staple food here is rice. Being pastoralists of yore, can lamb meat be far behind? The free-grazing animals are sustenance for small farmers. They are like ATMs – any time money. When their numbers increase, the sheep are sold. Need cash for a wedding in the family, sell some of the ruminants (and for the famous Wazwan of Kahmir). Short of money, sell a sheep -- just like a city bred would go to an ATM to pick up cash.
But over the past few decades, the city has fast lost its environment. The bounteous Dal has receded drastically. Homes, hotels, and a lot more have come up on the diminishing agricultural land. Young women and men are moving out or have taken up other jobs. No one cares to make Bamsoot jam and chutneys any more -- that provide much needed nutrition during the winters. Relishes made of Bamsoot, local greens and leafy vegetables can only be found in some homes.
Another climatic devastation has been the 2014 flood, from which many parts of Kashmir have yet to recover. The devastating floods of 2014 in Srinagar was not selective. The flood waters wiped away whatever came their way. Many parts of the Valley were inundated. Doodhi Ganga breached its embankment. Water levels rose in Tawi and Chenab.
Srinagar itself experienced 550 mm of rain in a week that September. The city was under water. This would not have happened if the water flow outlets had not disappeared, and several wetlands not encroached upon due to rapid and unplanned urbanization. Residential colonies have mushroomed in and around the city.
Infrastructural ‘development’ has taken away much of the agricultural land in the name of factories, brick kilns, shopping complexes and commercial buildings. All these factors have played havoc on the ecological resources of Srinagar as a city, and for the state overall.
The wetlands in and around Srinagar, like elsewhere, are the kidneys of the city -- taking away wastewater and cleansing them. Besides supporting Zeba, Gulrez and many others engaged in gathering and selling local produce, fodder, and tourism, these water bodies have been home to resident and migratory birds. But the spectre of vanishing wetlands looms large,
Now let’s come to the food part – with a nugget of information and a recipe to follow. For Kashmir, the saviour is the homegrown walnut -- not the staple rice or the vegetables that the wetlands produce. These walnuts fetch a handsome price in the market, while the aromatic varieties of rice for which this state was known are lost forever – just like the fish in the streams of Kashmir that made anglers from the world over cry “Hameen Astu” (paradise on earth).
India ranks eighth in walnut production – and 80 percent of walnuts grown in India comes from Jammu & Kashmir. The Valley produces about 60,000 tonnes from an area of 63,000 hectares.1 Gradually, apple orchards are coming up again.
So, what does one make out of walnuts besides the cakes, cookies and eating them raw? These thin-crusted walnuts of Kashmir make a delicious hand pounded chutney, to be eaten with different kinds of rotis made in local bakeries of the city.
How to make Walnut Chutney
With a pestle and mortar, coarsely crush some shelled walnuts. Take a few green chilli. Deseed them. Add to the walnuts. Pound them softly. Add some mint. Pound more. Your paste which needs to be a bit coarse is done.
Now take some curd. For thick consistency, you can use hung curd.
Add the walnut paste. Add salt, sugar, and chilli powder to taste. One can also sprinkle some roasted shah jeera powder from top just before serving.
Serve it with freshly baked plain roti or the crusty biscuity Kashmiri kulcha.
(The author runs a small home kitchen, Luchee Food Story)