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Peace Watch » Editor's Take » “Shallot Man” – A Dickensian Character in Ashpaz’s Team

“Shallot Man” – A Dickensian Character in Ashpaz’s Team



‘Shallot Man’


The lofty tents with white satin roofs, frills at ends hanging like damsel braids and transparent curtains flying at a slight breeze have an Arabian Night romance about them. For their grandeur, they are called white houses.  The dazzling illuminations and the mellifluous folk songs tearing apart silence of the nights reminiscent of festive occasions like Shab-i-Shalimar of the late fifties are most familiar scenes these days in the city. Scores of traditional chefs, Oshpuz or Ashpaz, along with other trained and semi-trained cooks engaged in preparing the multi-course mutton feast Wazawan are the most important feature of the marriage ceremonies. The cooks pounding meat with Goshapar, wooden mallet on a finely chiselled limestone, mincing meat with a ‘heftier blade’ on wood-stump (Muund) and singing folk songs in sync with the beats of the wooden mallet and butchers blades– with dozens of huge copper cauldrons on   burning logs of wood  add colours to pageant of the Kashmiri marriage.    
The ancestors of Ashpaz are believed to have traveled to Kashmir in the ancient times from Persia, the Central Asia, and Afghanistan along with caravans of traders and religious missionaries. The word Ashpaz besides being in the lexicon of Persian and Pashto is also part of Arabic and Turkish languages- of course in Turkish its connotation changes from  that of cook and soup- maker to  the sweets or sweet -maker. It can be linguists, who could say with some   authority if the word has entered into our language from Turkish, Arabic, Persian or Pashto. The Ashpazs passed on the culinary art of multi-course mutton preparation to the natives, and it came to be known in our mother tongue as wazawan and those engaged in it as wa’zii- many natives who adopted cookery as their profession retained their family titles like Bhat, Khosa, Bhandari, Hundoo, Kaw, etc., and   like many other Kashmiris engaged in different profession some Ashpazs came to be known by their sobriquets- nicknames.
Many a time, these scenes for cooking sumptuous feasts for hundreds guests make me look back and remember how preparations for such a feast started much in advances, with women in the family starting storing and persevering even smallest items used in the preparation of wazwan.  Mo’wul, the red cockscomb flower, with crest head resembling a rooster’s crown with long stem tied in   bunches often hanged from   beams in the loft of our house. These flowers were used for coloring some of the dishes of the wazawan- like Rogan Josh and Rais’ta. Garlands of red chilies festooned sills of the windows. The sacks of red Praan shallots were emptied on the bare floor of the Kani   of the house in early spring to allow them dry – these were one of the important items for making wazawan to taste better. Large quantities of different varieties of rice, more particularly Mushk Budji, known for its distinct aroma and taste were stored mostly in top floor in huge earthenware rotund containers or   storehouses made out of mats. Of all the indigenous varieties of the rice, Mushk Budji was expensive and much sought after- the guests accompanying the bridegroom were served this type of rice only. Like score of other indigenous varieties of rice for the apathy of the state this variety also has become extinct.
 Sometimes, while watching mega food cooking   on a marriages, the images of some characters from the team of the Ashpazs instantly come to my mind.  Some of them for their ‘greater intensity than human beings,’ were comparable to memorable charterers   in Charles Dickens novels.  Some of the characters were ‘simple souls and honest, hard-working, salt-of-the-earth creations.’ One such character lives to this day in my memory, wearing white turban like my theology teacher Mama Sahib, draped in white poo’uch   squatting on a mat, with middle-sized limestone mortar in front of him, a huge tray of deeply fried praan (shallots)   on his side and a wooden pestle in his hand he remained engaged in pulverizing the fried shallots to the finest paste for the whole day.  He has mastered this job to perfection, and the chefs never put him on any other job.  For wearing a long flowing beard, a prayer mark on his forehead and continuously reciting hymns while moving the pestle in the mortar he looked more of an ascetic than an apprentice of a chef. He was great devout of exiled Mirwaiz-i-Kashmir Molvi Mohammad Yusuf. Like many of his devotes, he remembered many a sermons he had heard from him by heart and could repeat them with ease. For his piety, many would send him for Hajj al-Badal.  But, the mischievous in the chef’s team for his short stature and round face had nicknamed him as Gana  Gushtaba- and we children also knew him by the same name.    

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