When Bhavana Challu started her catering service Nyenya Batta, centred on authentic Kashmiri Pandit food, in San Jose, California, in February 2016, she was doubtful if any Kashmiri would order from her, "because we are all very proud of how we cook". She was in for a surprise: A large number of her clients are Kashmiri.
Challu, 48, reasons that “this is the closest to home food they can find”—she estimates that there are around 500 Kashmiri families in the Bay Area. Second, people don't have the time to cook in bulk when they are inviting a lot of guests over. Challu, who has a commercial kitchen in downtown San Jose, delivers food all across the US and caters for parties, events and traditional Kashmiri Pandit weddings and wedding rituals like maenzrath (mehndiraat), and dapanbattae (lunch parties hosted by close relatives for the newly-weds).
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"Nyenya-batta" translates to meat and rice in Kashmiri—like the Bengali Sunday staple of mangsho-bhaat, mutton and rice is the highlight of the weekend lunch in Kashmiri homes—though Challu has a whole range of Kashmiri Pandit vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes on her menu.
As for her non-Kashmiri and non-Indian clients, Challu says she customises the food, taming down the spices and oil if required. "That's the reason we don't have online ordering on our website. I want to understand the person who is ordering, personally talk to them, and tell them about Kashmiri Pandit food—no onion, garlic and tomatoes are used—the combinations, the masalas."
Challu narrates an incident from three-four years ago, of an 80-year-old American lady who ordered food for her knitting group of six-seven women. The woman was surprised—it was unlike any Indian food she had had. "And when I told her about Kashmiri food, her reaction was: 'So, there is no tikka masala?'"
In fact, Challu's service crew is all Brazilian—they like the tschaman kaliya (a mild paneer gravy dish made with fennel powder and flavoured with green cardamoms).
How it began
Challu says she came home one day and told her husband she was quitting her corporate job (in HR). "I want to cook," she said. "Over the weekend we uploaded a website, started a FB page and just put it out for public. That day and today, every day has been busy."
She says she has at least three orders from out of state every week. There are times when parents have ordered for food to be delivered to their kids in their college hostel. During events and parties, her live counters of nadur monje (lotus stem fritters) and kabargah (deep-fried mutton ribs) go "viral".
When she started, Challu says she faced a tough time explaining to the butcher the different cuts of meat required for various dishes like rognajosh, yakhni and kabargah. She sorted the issue by installing a meat saw in her commercial kitchen. “Now, I am at ease,” she says.
What Kashmiri food would she recommend for a house party? "Your table should have all the colours: red (roganjosh, red paneer, gobi, damaloo, etc.), yellow (veg and non-veg kaliya, or yakhni), green (collard greens, or knol khol) and white (radish or walnut chutney)."
The pickle story
There's one special Kashmiri item that Challu gets a lot of orders for, from all over the US: She's back-ordered at the moment. It's the tangy, spicy and crunchy monje aachar, or knol khol pickle. Knol khol—also called kohlrabi, and ganthgobi in Hindi—is a cruciferous vegetable with a bulb, long stems and leaves: the bulb can be purple or pale green in colour. The purple variety is ideally preferred for the pickle. Usually found in winter, in California, Challu says, it's available all-year round.
Challu typically makes the pickle three times a year, around 10-12kg in each batch, the orders going up in winter for the Kashmiri ritual of Khech Mavas, and Shivratri. For Khech Mavas, rice is cooked with moong dal—it's pulao-like in texture—and offered to the Yakshas before the family partakes of it for dinner. The accompaniment to this dish is monje aachar. Challu, who grew up in Srinagar's Karan Nagar area, recalls that because it used to be very cold during Khech Mavas, her grandfather would ask her mother to flash-fry the pickle before serving. "The best combination though, which will make any Kashmiri drool, is hokh batta (plain rice) and monje aachar," she says.
Her elderly customers tell her that it takes them back to their childhood. She herself grew up watching her mother make the pickle . "We have grown up watching our mothers cook. That's how I learnt. It's not like somebody made me stand and said, put a spoon of this and a spoon of that."
What's her mother's reaction to her pickle? "When she says, 'hmm, jaan chu (hmm, it's good)', that means I must have done it right," she laughs.
Here's Challu's recipe for Kashmiri Monje Aachar:
Kashmiri Monje Aachar
4-5 bulbs (1kg) knol khol, with stems and leaves
3 tbsp Kashmiri red chilli powder
4 tbsp whole coriander seeds
One and a half tbsp brown mustard seeds (lal rai)
One and a half tbsp salt
One and a half cup mustard oil (and oil for topping)
Thoroughly wash the knol khol. Remove the stems and leaves and cut the bulb, with peel on, into bite-sized cubes. Discard the woody end of the bulb. Pat dry. If the leaves are small, leave them intact, otherwise tear into big-sized pieces. While some people discard the stems, Challu adds them to the pickle.
Spread out the chopped knol khol on a clean cloth and air-dry in the sun for not more than two days so that the peel does not get hard.
Combine the spices and salt in a bowl (you can crush the coriander seeds slightly if you want). Add the mustard oil and mix well. Next add the knol khol, and mix thoroughly with your hands, ensuring that it is evenly coated with the oil and masala. Take a clean, dry glass jar and pack it tightly with the mixture, so that there are no air pockets. Close the jar and leave it in the sun for two-three days.
As fermentation takes place, the mixture will shrink a bit. Now top it up with more mustard oil. Keep in the sun for two weeks. If you live in a place where sunlight is scarce, leave the jar next to the stove on the kitchen counter.
The pickle should be ready in two weeks. If the weather is cold, this will take three-four weeks. Refrigerate once ready so that it retains its crunchiness and stays longer.
The pungency in the pickle comes from mustard oil and the sourness from mustard seeds. You can follow the same procedure for making cauliflower pickle.
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