Called handh in Kashmiri, a wild variety of dandelion is considered a miracle herb to cure a host of physical ailments; from helping with lowering the creatinine levels among those suffering from chronic renal disease, to being used as a remedy for digestive disorders.
At journalist-turned-farmer Afshan Rashid’s farm, Baag Manzuk, in Pulwama near Srinagar, guests are encouraged to forage for the leaves of this “miracle weed” as she calls it. It’s used fresh or dried to go into dishes such as handh maanz (fresh dandelion leaf with lamb). Rashid prepared this dish as part of her farm life cookery demonstration. Literally translated into English as “from my garden”, Baag Manzuk has been more than just a passion project for the 32-year-old ever since she took over the reigns of this modest-sized farm from her father in 2021.
With years of experience, she has cultivated not only a thriving farm, but also a profound knowledge of the local flora and fauna. Here, Rashid grows and experiments with a number of fruits and vegetables, such as the rare red okra, golden kiwis, rhubarb leaves called phamb haak and the famous Kashmiri bumchoonth or apple quince. However, it is her walnuts and a variety of apple trees (including the tart Granny Smiths) that earn a large chunk of revenue for the farm. She sells the farm's apples at the fruit mandi of Sopore, which is believed to be Asia’s second biggest fruit market and the largest for apple trade.
“Ours is the first farm in Kashmir to employ the drip irrigation system as opposed to simply flooding the orchards that is the traditional watering method here,” says Rashid, and adds, “Sustainable organic farming is something I’m very passionate about. But it’s an expensive proposition that I need to supplement by such farm-to-table cooking classes and hopefully a farm-stay project that I hope to start.” The manure for the farm comes from her latest acquisition of a herd of tiny Ladakhi cows that join her Jersey cattle.
An hour’s drive away from Srinagar and perched on the hilly banks of the lotus leaf-covered Manasbal Lake, The Farmhouse Srinagar in Manasbal is another woman-led project that places a high premium on sustainable practices as well as its organic underpinnings. Thus ensuring that all of its products are free of additives, artificial colours and harmful chemicals.
Started in 2018 by Anjum Yousuf, an M.Sc Electronics graduate, this beautiful farm is laden with all sorts of fruit trees that produce a variety of apples and bumchoonth. The latter go into Yousuf’s much in demand murraba. The farm also makes a range of milk-based desserts like phirni along with kalari cheese and an aromatic cow ghee. These are sourced by restaurants and food business across India.
“I started with dairy farming in 2012 as a hobby. Over the years, I developed an interest in integrated farming which now includes apiculture, organic vegetable cultivation, seasonal jams and dairy products and vermicomposting unit,” says Yousuf.
One of her most popular products is a unique Kashmiri wet spice mix called waer. It’s made with ingredients like pungent shallots, garlic and vibrant red Kashmiri chillies grown on the farm.
A firm believer in the philosophy that gender has no role in defining a person’s capability, Yousuf feels that the youth and more so women need to explore varied career options, other than the conventional ones. “Everyone faces challenges when they start a new venture. Kashmir has tremendous resources available and enough talent too to make the most of them,” she says.
Vanshika Bhatia, chef-partner at OMO, an all vegetarian community restaurant, nestled in Gurugram’s bustling Galleria Market sources from these women farmers. The chef focuses on acquiring ingredients sustainably from far corners of India. Recently, she visited Kashmir to forage ingredients, learn about local dishes and explore local markets for her new menu. It is peppered with Kashmiri elements she gleaned from both Baag Manzuk and The Farmhouse.
“While I was still on the trip, I conceptualised a few recipes by simply seeing and tasting the products that are so lovingly produced by the two ladies,” says Bhatia who is planning, among others, a dish combining kalari cheese and quince murraba sitting atop the crisp Kashmiri bread, bakarkhani.
“The cornerstone of my cooking at OMO is the ingredient-first philosophy. With every dish, we bring you stories about how each ingredient—from a certain type of grain to spices and seasonal produce—plays a role in bringing entire communities together,” believes Bhatia who has since set up a regular supply chain for the procurement of ingredients like quinces, fresh walnuts and dairy products from both farms.
Thus giving impetus to a cause that not just encourages commerce from a place like Kashmir, but also from women entrepreneurs who aim to make a difference in the way we look at food.
Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.