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The delicious world of smoke, meat and barbeque in Srinagar

A food hub since the early 1990s, Khayam Chowk in Srinagar comes alive every evening, with dozens of shops serving grills and local dishes

A vendor selling barbequed meat in Khayam Chowk. (Photo: Adil Abbas)

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There’s no better place for hot mutton barbeque than Khayam Chowk in Srinagar. This popular food street comes alive after sundown as locals and tourists throng the eateries lining both sides. The air is thick with the smoky aroma of spiced meat and barbeque on charcoal embers. At the entrance of most of the eateries, skewers strung with pieces of spiced mutton, fish and whole roasted chickens are on display.

Khayam Chowk became a food hub in the early 1990s, starting with a couple of barbeque joints and then expanding to the whole street over the years. It is especially famous for its mutton seekh tujj (skewered meat) served with seven different spicy chutneys and a traditional Kashmiri flatbread called lavasa, which people also like to have with nun chai (salt tea) in the mornings. The skewered meat is cooked over smoky charcoal in clay ovens fanned in the open.

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Most of the outlets serve kababs, as well as a variety of mutton and chicken dishes. In recent years, some have also added fish to the menu on popular demand. Customers range from students to doctors, medical staff and patients from the nearby hospital, and families. Some eat on tables inside, while others place orders and then eat in the open, in their cars parked on the side of the street. Some local people, mostly the young crowd, also prefer to eat the tujj standing near the ovens at the front of the eateries where the meat is charred over charcoal embers.

One of the oldest and most popular establishments, Shahi Darbar, is run by 47-year-old Mohammad Azhar, who arrived from Bijnor in Uttar Pradesh over three decades ago. It has grown into a two-storey restaurant offering a variety of meat-based dishes, including seekh tujj, seekh kabab, tandoori chicken, rogan josh, and its famous chicken korma. Outlets like Shahi Darbar remain busy till closing, as customers are known to show up even up to two in the night on summer days.

“We get original spices and then grind them ourselves into finer spices that are then used for various meat and chicken preparations,” says Ritikh Kina, who has been working at Shahi Darbar for more than 10 years now. They serve different varieties of chutneys with seekh tujj, made from a combination of cucumber, radish, onion and garlic.

Khayam Chowk grill shops. (Photo: Adil Abbas)
Khayam Chowk grill shops. (Photo: Adil Abbas)

The food street got its name from Khayam cinema, a popular movie hall before it was shut down after militancy broke out in the valley in the early 1990. In subsequent years, it was converted into a private hospital. The rush of patients and attendants in the hospital has also helped in providing more customers to the food street. Today, there are around 50 outlets like Shahi Darbar lined up on both sides of this street. Each sells 200-250 plates of mutton barbeque alone per day in peak season, says Kina.

Muneer cafeteria is another old and popular food joint in the chowk. It was started by its owner Abdul Hameed in the early 1990s. He began with a single barbeque-selling point. Today, it has grown to a two-storey cafeteria offering seekh tujj, seekh kabab, tandoori chicken and multi-course wazwan dishes.

“The food we serve suits everyone’s taste and is reasonably priced. Our customers include students, doctors, paramedic staff from the nearby hospital who often eat their lunch and dinner here,” says Hilal Ahmad, Abdul Hameed’s son, who returned from Goa around 10 years ago after earning a degree in hotel management to help his father run and expand their restaurant.

“Twice or thrice a week when I am returning home from work, I make sure to stop by and have something at the food street in the afternoon,” says 30-year-old Mohammad Arfat, an engineer at a railway station. “The smell of tujj and other delicacies here is irresistible.”

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