By Nipa Charagi
When Sanjay Raina got a call from Raj Bhavan, Jammu and Kashmir, saying that the lieutenant governor, Manoj Sinha, wanted him to curate the gala dinner on 22 May for G20 delegates in Srinagar, his first reaction was one of joy, followed by nervousness. This nervousness did not stem from the scale of the event—over 400 guests—but its profile. He knew there would be no room for error.
Raina runs the Gurugram, Haryana-based catering company Mealability The Flavour Of Kashmir, started in 2015, and a restaurant of the same name at J&K House on Delhi’s Prithviraj Road, which opened in 2019. Both centre exclusively on Kashmiri food.
This is not the first time Raina has played a role in food diplomacy. A 25 December 2016 Mint story, headlined How A 12-course Kashmiri Feast Broke The GST Logjam, noted, “This is what transpired last Friday, the second and final day of a key meeting of the goods and services tax (GST) council, the apex body deciding on the country’s marquee indirect tax reform. Food diplomacy achieved what consultations and cajoling couldn’t." The then J&K finance minister, Haseeb Drabu, offered to host lunch, replacing the standard official servings with a spread of Kashmiri delicacies like haakh, damaloo, rista, roganjosh, “working wonders on delegates’ moods". The food was catered by Raina.
The 60-year-old chef, who has also been a music artist for over a decade, is an evangelist, if you will, of Kashmir and Kashmiri cuisine, promoting it across his social media accounts. His company has catered to destination weddings, both Kashmiri and non-Kashmiri, from Turkey to the United Arab Emirates and Sri Lanka, and he holds Kashmiri food festivals across the country. While promoting the region’s cuisine, he makes it a point to underscore that while wazwan (an elaborate Kashmiri Muslim celebratory meal) is an important part of Kashmiri cuisine, there is also the Pandit cuisine, which has vanished from the Valley over the past three decades; the young generation does not even know about it.
Raina says one of the biggest things you can do to promote food is to share your recipes/ knowledge. “Traditional cooks used to guard their recipes/trade secrets. If you don’t share, the cuisine will die," he says.
Staying true to the recipe
For the G20 gala dinner—held on the SKICC lawns overlooking the Dal Lake—the spread included dishes from the wazwan, including tabakh maaz, goshtaba, rista, daniwal korma, roganjosh; vegetarian dishes like tomato paneer, nadur yakhni, haakh, khattey baingan from Kashmiri Pandit cuisine; and a rajma dish from Jammu. The showstopper was the gucchi pulao, for which the morels were sourced from Kupwara district.
The dessert was a saffron phirni. Raina says that ideally, he would have liked to showcase the shuftaa—a combination of dry fruits, cottage cheese and spices coated in sugar syrup—but it was not possible given the large number of guests. The dessert needs to be served at the right temperature, otherwise it starts to caramelise.
Raina’s brief was to give the delegates a taste of Kashmiri cuisine. He says efficient menu planning is important—getting the balance right in terms of flavours, colours and ingredients. He illustrates with an example. “If I have tschok tscharvan (a tangy mutton liver preparation) on the menu, I will not add khatta meat (from Dogra cuisine) because then they become very similar."
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Through it all, he stayed true to the traditional recipes, making concessions only in size and focusing on standardisation.
The tweaks that Raina made: He reduced the size of the tabakh maaz, rista and goshtaba by around 15-20% so that the guests could taste a wide variety of dishes. The size of the nadru (lotus stem) in nadru yakni was also reduced to make it manageable to fork into the mouth in one piece.
He recalls his team sifting through seven sacks of potatoes, 50kg each, to pick similar-sized potatoes for the damaloo. They looked almost like rista, he says.
I ask if he toned down the oil or spices for the G20 event. “A couple of Kashmiri dishes like roganjosh and damaloo are oily but I made them exactly the way they are supposed to be made and then drained some of the excess oil off without compromising with the dish," he says. As for spices, the Kashmiri red chilli powder is not hot. And there are a range of dishes, like haakh and vegetarian and meat-based yakhnis, which use minimal of spices , he adds.
“You can tweak in terms of size or shape but if you change the ingredients or the way the dish is prepared, then what is actually lost is the traditional recipe," says the chef.
Raina, who grew up in Srinagar, graduated from the Institute of Hotel Management, Pusa, Delhi. He worked with hotels like Hotel Corporation of India, and The Oberoi, Mumbai, including stints at Trident Mosul and Babylon Oberoi, both in Iraq. In 1993, while working at Hyatt Regency Delhi, he was signed by Magnasound. He quit Hyatt and joined the music industry. His forte—Indian pop and remixes; some of his albums include Remix No.1, Hungama, Balle Balle Shera. Along the way, he started an event management company, while curating Kashmiri food festivals from time to time.
In 2015, he decided to return full-time to the food scene, starting with weekend takeaways of Kashmiri food. “Those weekends became a full week in just no time."
He says right from his schooldays, he was interested in cooking. “I would watch the right people, like my Kashmiri Muslim friend’s mother—she used to make excellent tomato paneer—and wazas (cooks), how they would cut, pound mutton, prep, cook, etc. “It’s been a process."
As for singing, Raina says he’s gotten so busy with food that there’s no time for it now. “I think I have handed over that (singing) baton to my son (actor and singer Taaruk Raina)," he says.
- FIRST PUBLISHED08.06.2023 | 09:00 AM IST