Kashmir's harissa makers keep afloat despite challenges

After more than sixty years of making the popular winter delicacy, 80-year-old Ghulam Mohammad Bhat measures with instinct the volume of spices needed in the making of Kashmir’s traditional harissa — chunks of meat reduced to a sumptuous paste, topped with hot oil. 

Today, Ghulam Mohammad along with his son Zahoor Ahmad Bhat, 45, runs the 200-year-old harissa shop in downtown Srinagar’s Aali Kadal area that was setup by his forefathers. 

Someone in the Bhat family, Ghulam Mohammad believes, learned the art of making the harissa from the pupils of the Persian sufi Sayyid Ali Hamadani — it is believed that the sufi scholar introduced the delicacy in Kashmir.

Through the years, the Bhat family has been making harissa for customers pouring in from across Kashmir. “We have our regular customers and they even wait for two to three days sometimes to have it [harissa],” he said. 

In the past, Ghulam Mohammad claims to have served the delicacy to many prominent personalities. “I have even made harissa for Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud — King of Saudi Arabia,” he claimed. At another time, he added, Bollywood star Dilip Kumar also relished the harissa at the shop, then run by his father.

“I myself have served harissa to almost all the famous personalities in Kashmir including Mirwaiz Farooq Shah, Sheikh Abdullah, and etcetera,” he said. “Even Sheikh Abdullah knew that our family had the prayers of Mirwaiz with us.”

Sitting in the corner of the small shop with pink walls, Ghulam Mohammad chopped big chunks of mutton; behind him, an award from the Institute of Hotel Management appreciation of his skill hung on the wall. Even today, Ghulam’s harissa joint continues to be one of the most popular.

Making the delicacy

Ghulam Mohammad joined the business at the age of eighteen, when his father’s health started deteriorating. Growing up, seeing his father cook the delicacy to perfection, Ghulam could not afford any flaw. “He would just stare at me when I made any mistake,” he said. “That stayed with me.”

Harissa continues to be in demand throughout the winter season in Kashmir that lasts till March, starting from October when the weather starts turning cold and streets start filling with fog during early mornings and late evenings. 

Throughout the season, Ghulam Mohammad and Zahoor do not go back to their home in Nowhatta area of Srinagar because of the 14-hour work required for cooking fifty kilograms of harissa everyday.

“We do not even get time to sleep. The work starts around 1 pm in the afternoon and ends at 5 am, next morning,” said Ghulam Mohammad. “The customers start rushing in around that time.”

The process of making harissa starts with chopping lamb. The lamb chops are then put in the earthen pot where they are cooked on slow flame till the bones start getting separated from the mutton and the mutton starts softening. “It requires one to wait for a very long time,” he said. 

Removing bones, as per Ghulam Mohammad, is considered the most difficult task while making harissa. “If even a small bone remains, the harissa gets ruined,” said Ghulam Mohammad. 

Meanwhile, rice is cooked slowly and then mutton is added to it, including garlic, shallots and mild spices like cardamom, fennel seeds and cloves. “Then the real process starts where the mixture is pounded continuously till it starts to look like a paste,” he said. 

The mutton is pounded using a stick with a claw-like structure in the front called panje (claws) in Kashmiri language. “It is used to blend all the ingredients together,” said Ghulam Mohammad.

Nowadays, Ghulam Mohammad cooks twenty kilograms of mutton every day to make sixteen kilograms of harissa for his customers. “Till last year, we would need around sixty kilograms of mutton to make forty-five kilograms of harissa,” he said. 

The price of harissa has changed over the years but the quality has remained the same. “One kilogram of harissa costs 1,000 rupees today. A few years ago, it used to cost around 700 rupees,” said Ghulam Mohammad, adding that he earns around two lakh rupees in a season of work. 

A special counter with at least four earthen pots is used to make the delicacy in every harissa shop and requires maintenance from time to time. While water is stored and boiled in two pots, harissa is cooked in one and complimentary methi maaz (a dish prepared with chopped lamb intestines and dried fenugreek leaves) is cooked in another pot. “I change the pots at least four times in a season. Each pot costs 5000 rupees,” he said. 

Harissa does not have many varieties. Some people order harissa with almonds. When it is made on special occasions, milk is used instead of water,” he said.

“I will keep guiding my son”

Ghulam Mohammad didn’t want his son to join the business because of the hectic schedule that one has to follow while making harissa on a daily basis but his son could not stay away from the art for long and joined his father as he turned 22. “A malang (Sufi saint) looked at my son once. I could not keep him away from the business after that,” said Ghulam Mohammad. 

While Ghulam Mohammad and his son have made a name in the business in the past many years, COVID-19 has left them both worried for this season due to the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) created by the government. “We understand that there is at risk. We are worried for ourselves and the customers,” said Zahoor. 

Each year, the shop witnesses a huge rush of customers in the early hours of the morning when the dawn starts breaking. People eat their harissa on big plates, loaded with kebabs, methi maaz, or mustard oil. But this year, the father-son duo has decided to sell the harissa in boxes for the safety of their customers. “They can take it home and eat safely at their places,” said Zahoor. 

Even after a huge rush of customers, Zahoor and his father have never thought of converting their shop into a proper restaurant, in order to keep the essence of a typical harissa shop alive. “This is our culture, people love it this way,” said Zahoor.

As per him, Zahoor received offers to work for big restaurants and cafes including Mughal Darbar and Chai Jaai but he refused. “We do not want to stop doing what we have been doing for the last 200 years,” he said.

After twenty-one years in the business, Zahoor still works under the guidance of his father and believes that his father’s presence makes his shop and his harissa better. “He supports me through everything,” said Zahoor. 

Meanwhile, Ghulam Mohammad wants to continue making harissa till the time he is alive. “ I will keep guiding my son. This will make me feel better,” he said, in a tired voice.

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