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Memories of Kashmir sealed in bread

A Kashmiri documentary-maker and a chef distil nostalgia to tell their stories of breads from the valley

A ‘kandurwan’, loosely translated as baker shop, in Kashmir
A ‘kandurwan’, loosely translated as baker shop, in Kashmir (Photo: Alamy)

Through the recent lockdown in Kashmir and losses estimated at more than $1.4 billion (around 9,800 crore), it has largely been business as usual in the age-old kandurwans, loosely translated as baker shops, which sell Kashmiri breads, or rotis, known as tschots. “There has never been a time when the neighbourhood kandurwan would be shut," says Asif Iqbal Burza, managing director at Ahad Hotels and Resort in Srinagar.

A still from the documentary ‘Kandurwan: Baking History’.
A still from the documentary ‘Kandurwan: Baking History’. (Photo: Alamy)

Kandurwan: Baking History, a documentary by Kashmiri film-maker Mehvish Rather, puts the spotlight on the history and place of food in Kashmiri society. “Food evokes an emotional reaction, be it for the diaspora audience who will reminisce about home after watching it, or those unaware of our culture. They will get to see us not just as victims or perpetrators, but as people going about our daily lives," she says. In the documentary, screened a at the Dharamshala International Film Festival in November, an interviewee draws parallels between kandurwans and social media. Before Facebook or Twitter, a topic would go viral in Kashmiri neighbourhoods because it had been discussed at the kandurwan in the morning.

Kashmiri breads are not made at home. The dough is left to ferment overnight in the kandurwans and baked early next morning in a tandoor. Fresh tschots bought in the early hours of the day are eaten with the salty nunchai or the fragrant kehwa. They are an integral part of everyday food, Burza says. “It is our daily roti and no matter what the situation is in Kashmir, there has never been a time when tschots are unavailable."

Kashmiri breads—there are more than a hundred varieties today—can be traced to the second century, to Central Asia and the Silk Route. They share similarities with breads in Persia as well as western China, which were focal trade destinations on that route. There are different types of tschots, such as the croissant-like katlam, lavasa, girda, gyav tschot, kulcha, tschowor, sheermal, bakarkhani and roth. Lavasa looks and tastes like a blend of tandoori roti and naan. Girda is circular in shape, with pizza-like puffed borders and a dimpled surface. The baker makes the dented patterns with fingertips to bake it evenly. The flour is kneaded with salt, a little sugar and milk. Gyav tschot is translated as ghee bread. Basically, it’s girda kneaded with lots of ghee.  Kulcha is crispy and available in both its savoury and sweet variations. The sweet kulcha dough has copious amounts of ghee and is baked for a longer time for a pronounced crunchy texture. Tschowor, consumed in the evening, looks and tastes like a bagel. Sheermal is also available in both its sweet and savoury versions. It is dented with patterns resembling parallel lines. “One of the best sheermals hails from the Pampore district of Kashmir. It’s (the shop’s) called Hema Malini Sheermal, thus named because the baker is as beautiful as the actor," says Burza.

Then there is the costlier celebratory tschot—bakarkhani, served on special occasions. The layered bread is large in size, with a diameter that can extend up to 36 inches. It goes well with mutton dishes like roganjosh. These are popular in Sopore, in northern Kashmir. Roth, which is sweet and has a sponge cake-like texture, is a favourite in Kashmiri Pandit households, though Hindu and Muslim families use it as celebratory food. When a toddler takes the first steps, roth is distributed among friends and family. When a woman gets married, there’s a ceremony involving this bread called roth khabar. It is packed with some salt for the bride’s journey to her in-laws’ home. Burza emphasizes that each type of tschot has multiple variations and flavour interpretations.

In Mumbai, Kashmiri chefs and those who frequent the valley have recreated their memories of tschot and kandurwan in the kitchen. Milan Gupta, co-founder and concept creator of the Taftoon restaurant in Mumbai, has crafted a menu partly inspired by Kashmiri food. So, there is bakarkhani, made in a cast-iron oven, and sweet kulcha served as a dessert. “I first visited a kandurwan in Kashmir in the 1980s and nothing about it has changed," he says.

“Bakers work odd hours. Sometimes they sing local folk songs to keep themselves awake," he adds.

Kashmiri chef Prateek Sadhu is the co-founder of Masque, a restaurant in Mumbai with an ingredient-focused ethos. Their menu changes seasonally, but the katlam has a permanent place. They are served in a small wicker basket. One portion includes four palm-sized pieces of warm buns, their insides flaky like a croissant, and their glossy crust sprinkled with sesame and poppy seeds. Every bite melts in the mouth like hot butter on toast, leaving a faint salty aftertaste.

Drawing on childhood memories, Sadhu recalls that every afternoon, his mother would keep aside a tooker (a wicker basket) with a napkin and money for him to buy tschot. Today, the breads he serves at his restaurant are inspired by them.

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