Anchar (Srinagar): Hafiza Bano, 42, is busy laying out freshly washed fish on a pile of dry wild grass, interwoven loosely to form a platform. It is being readied for smoking— Hafiza's family is in the business of selling smoked fish, called pherr in Kashmiri.
Because pherr is a winter dish, smoked fish is available only from the onset of autumn. Locally called Kasheir gaed, the fish used is a variety of trout belonging to the genus Schizothorax.
The most popular way of cooking it is with collard greens (haakh). The finished dish, pherr haakh, needs a bit of prepping: The skin of the smoked fish is removed and it is fried till it turns reddish-brown. In the meantime, the collard greens are cooked with spices and the fish is added to this and cooked till all the water is absorbed and oil floats to the top. Its best had with steamed rice, and it's best not to reheat the dish.
Today, however, changing ecology, lifestyles and food choices have resulted in smoked fish, dried vegetables and other winter delicacies slowly vanishing from Kashmiri cuisine. Smoked fish, in particular, is losing out because the favoured variety, Kasheir gaed, is no longer easily available. Nor, as it happens, is the wild grass used for the smoking process.
Kashmiri historian and poet Zareef Ahmed Zareef, 77, says that when he was young, hundreds of women would roam Srinagar’s markets selling smoked fish. Pherr haakh is one of the tastiest and most nutritious dishes he remembers from his childhood. "A special spice mix of cumin, garlic, cinnamon, black and green cardamom and clove was hand-pounded to prepare this dish. When my mother would open the lid of the utensil containing the smoked fish, its appetising aroma would fill the house and even the neighbours would come to know what's cooking," he says.
Things have changed considerably since. While Hafiza's family has been in the business of selling smoked fish for three decades, her children are not keen on taking it forward. “Our children are studying in different colleges and universities outside Kashmir. The ones who are here do not get involved as there are taboos associated with this trade and people who do this work are generally looked down upon by society," says Hafiza.
The smoked fish business is shrinking. About 20 years ago, Hafiza and her family would sell around 60-80 kg of smoked fish every day on average during October to April months; this has come down to 20-25kg. One kilogram of smoked fish costs ₹300-400. Not surprisingly, just a handful of families are still in the business. “The demand for pherr has diminished as the Kaeshir gaed is not available in abundance now. Elderly people still like it, but they complain of the taste and quality as we use fish that we buy from farms. Children are also more inclined to other foods available in the market,” Hafiza says.
Zareef concurs, adding that there aren’t too many fish left in the lakes. “The Anchar lake in the Soura area of Srinagar was full of fresh fish, but now it is polluted and has shrunk in size. People, especially the younger generation, are aware of the condition of the lake and don't want to eat fish from there, fearing contamination.”
In fact, those associated with the trade of smoked fish have always lived around lakes like Anchar, from where the fish is sourced. But Anchar, located around 14 km from Srinagar, has itself shrunk from 19.54 sq. km in 1893–94 to 6.5 sq. km in 2012 and to 4.26 sq. km now. Quite possibly, the lake contains more sewage, plastic and medical waste than fish fit for consumption.
That may be the main problem but it’s not the only one. Concretisation has become so common that the grass used for smoking the fish is also not readily available. Hafiza's brother-in-law, Nazir Ahmed Tichloo, says: “There is no wild grass, or narre gasea, available in the nearby areas. This grass grows on damp land and burns slowly but due to encroachment, the damp areas got converted into residential areas. We get grass from forests in Ganderbal, around 15km from Soura. Earlier, the lake would give us fish and its marshy area would give us grass. But now we have to buy both. There is barely any profit, but we do not know any other trade.”
Safina Nabi is an Independent Journalist based in Kashmir. She writes about gender, culture, health and social justice.