As we continue Fantasy Travel Week we bring you a dispatch from chef and cookbook author Jody Eddy, who traveled deep into the heart of Kashmir to learn about the sacred saffron harvest.
The saffron farmer handed me a burlap bag of crocus before we said goodbye after a long day of harvesting in Pampore, India — a village renowned for the quality of its saffron. He instructed us to take our bounty back to our hotel and pluck from the center of each purple flower, extracting three saffron stamens. He promised us the same gratification he had from a harvest that lasts for a fleeting two weeks in the fall.
We thanked him and his family for illustrating so beautifully the life cycle of the crocus from bulbs to violet petals withering on parched fields, discarded once the flowers have been plucked of their saffron; no more use to the farmers who diligently cull every last bud from their dry but nurturing soil beds.
It was the final chapter of a trip to Kashmir that began in exhaustion and ended in red stained fingertips and hands caked in dirt. I waved goodbye as we drove away from the family who so generously gave us their time and shared expertise handed down through countless generations.
Kashmir is a predominantly Muslim region where the men don skullcaps and loosely fitting tunics called pherans and the women wear flowing pherans and intricately embroidered veils referred to as tarangas. The thirsty brown saffron fields were a glaring contrast to the vibrant colors the family was wearing, as brilliant as the famed pashmina scarves they told us they weave to make ends meet between saffron harvests.
Their pastime equated to 50 weeks of weaving and waiting for the bulbs planted the year before to sprout, bloom and finally open their petals to reveal their treasured cargo; stamens so precious the livelihoods of the people bound to them ebb and flow with their fluctuating value.
Kashmir is a state in northwestern India that has seen more than its share of conflict in an ongoing, decades long battle with Pakistan. The clashes have lessened in recent years but show no sign of abating completely. Everything in this cool, mountainous region felt a little more difficult than it does in the rest of India, a nation notorious for its crippling bureaucracy.
Even purchasing a SIM card is virtually impossible for a tourist in Kashmir since only citizens are allowed to procure them due to the threat of Pakistani terrorists anonymously using them to transmit messages with their cohorts across the border, about six hours away from Srinagar, the region’s capital.
I was told that the conflict was a thing of the past when I decided to book the 16-hour car ride from Amritsar in the state of Punjab to Srinagar. The sprawling city ringed by snow-capped mountains is famed for Dal Lake, a seemingly endless body of water renowned for its ornately carved wooden houseboats and punting boats called shikaras. The gondolas of Kashmir.
We arrived at the hotel in the dead of night and our driver promptly drove away. No one answered when we rang the bell of the security gate. I started to panic as I assessed the only alternatives we had; camping out on the street or trying to scale the imposing metal fence in search of a bed for the night.
And then a man emerged through the fog. He said nothing to us as he climbed over the gate to wake up the innkeeper who unlocked the door. I turned to thank our cryptic savior but he disappeared into the thick white fog as quickly as he emerged.
It was the first, but certainly not the last, act of hospitality I would experience during my stay in Kashmir. The next occurred the following morning when the waiter from the hotel’s dining room woke me from a sleep I hoped would last for days. He was inviting me to tea. I wiped my eyes as I stepped out into the cold Kashmiri day, longing for my bed but looking forward to warming up with a hot cup of tea.
The blue sky and staggeringly high mountains were no match for the beauty of generosity that morning. It was off-season in Kashmir and I seemed to be the only hotel guest except for my traveling companion who was still sleeping. But there was still a full staff at the restaurant. The chef invited me into the kitchen to watch him prepare kahwah tea, a specialty of Kashmir typically comprised of green tea, saffron, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon and cloves.
The aroma of the spices perked me up and filled my head with relief from the long drive the day before. I wandered to an outdoor table; it was cold outside but I didn’t want to lose sight of the mountains. The waiter handed me three walnuts, a specialty of the region that he said he plucked from his tree that morning.
“These will endure your long journey home. Take them with you to remember Kashmir,” he said before preparing the kahwah. I was fairly certain that I would remember Kashmir even without the walnuts but I tucked them into my purse just in case.
He first sprinkled the bottom of the cup with shaved almonds before pouring the tea into it and stirring in a ribbon of honey. This was no ordinary cup of ubiquitous Indian chai. Sweet and aromatic, the saffron transformed it into a regal gold color, the ginger and cinnamon sharpened it up, and the cardamom arrived at the close, lingering, honey laced, to ensure a satisfying finish.
We spent the first few days in Srinagar wandering through its traditional market where vendors sell staples like pistachios, pomegranates, cashews, lotus root, dried plums and a dried cockscomb flower known as mawal. The street food of Kashmir is similar to offerings found throughout much of northern India including fried vegetable pakoras and bhel puri, a puffed rice snack gussied up with chopped onions, tomatoes and chiles dressed in a tangy tamarind sauce.
Kahmiris rarely say no to meat like they do in other parts of India. They adore it. Goat is a favorite, but lamb is the darling of the Kashmiri menu. Before heading to the hotel to pluck our crocuses of their saffron, we decided to partake in a wazwan dinner. Wazwan is a Kashmiri Muslim multi-course extravaganza of meat dishes followed by meat dishes, concluding in meat dishes. It’s not to be indulged in without close proximity to a bed to fall into after the several hour-long spectacle of indulgence. In spite of its heady nature, it’s a ritual that shouldn’t be missed when visiting Kashmir.
Lamb, chicken and fish are at the heart of this feast, whose preparation is revered as a symbol of cultural identity among Kashmiri Muslims. It tops out at 36 dishes. We did not go there, opting instead for a few wazwan highlights that our waiter recommended.
There was rista, pounded lamb meatballs swimming in a spicy red sauce, muj gaad, fish dressed in radishes, and syoon olav, lamb and potatoes braised in a thick gravy. It was tempting to continue the wazwan marathon but knowing it would inevitably end in a crash and burn we walked away with the resolve to return to Kashmir one day to try the remaining 33 dishes.
And then the plucking commenced. We laid out a newspaper in the candlelit room, pouring our bag of crocus on top. It wasn’t an obscene amount of flowers and we estimated we would be finished before our meal had a chance to begin digesting. A few hours later, as night closed in and the final call to prayer commenced to close the day in this Muslim city, we were still plucking.
Vast crocus fields tipping off the horizon are required to produce such a small amount of saffron that it felt like I was plucking diamonds that night. Symbolic of the hardship and beauty that is Kashmir, saffron illustrates the perplexing grace of a world where its citizens soothe the spiritual wounds of war by plucking walnuts from their trees and pouring visitors cups of golden tea.
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