Breaking the glass ceiling, a group of Kashmiri women ventured into the traditional and male-dominated local cuisine ‘Wazwan’ – famous for its culture-specific dishes prepared during engagement ceremonies, weddings, religious ceremonies and even births and deaths.
In what is believed to be the first all-women ‘waza’ (chef or chef) group, the young members overcame prejudice, social stigma and ridicule to pursue their passion and start making their presence felt on the culinary circuit of the Valley.
“For the past year, we have prepared wazwan for five to six events. The beginning was difficult. People would say “kya ladko wala kaam ladkiyan kar rahi hai (What’s the matter with girls doing men’s work.”). Some women would tell us that we should get married and take care of our homes,” said Akhter Jan, 26, one of the group members from Ganderbal, who is pursuing a masters degree in rural development.
The initial social opposition to the group stems from the wazwan realm, which is synonymous with men.
And while these women are yet to cook at a grand wedding in Kashmir, known for its mutton and chicken dishes, for about a year now the group from central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district has been cooking at smaller events like engagements, championships and religious festivals like Niyaz .”
Zhang said their persistence paid off when their acquaintances and fellow villagers gave them a chance to make wazwan. “We have started cooking for functions like engagements and Firsaal. That’s when people realized we had talent,” Akhter said.
Wazwan is not just a dish, it involves days of planning and hours of cooking in making and serving it. Traditionally, the food ranges from anything between 7 and 36 courses, most of which are made from meat cooked overnight over raging cooking fires, featuring a spread of huge copper vessels, mounds of mutton, chicken, fish, vegetables and heaps of spices and more ingredients.
The 10-member group came into being in June 2022 with the help of the National Rural Livelihoods Mission, brought together by various self-help groups to help women earn a living in central Kashmir.
They first started cooking vegetarian food for Amarnath yatris in a village hut. “Then we thought why not do something different and something spectacular. We often cook in our homes and Wazwan cooks on a grand scale,” she said.
While the group learned the skills from some traditional wazwan cooks, a five-day training was also provided by the NRLM at Solina in Srinagar.
Group leader Humaira, also from Ganderbal, said they were initially apprehensive as the work also involved heavy manual labour, including feeding large boilers. “Before, only men would do such work. We took the job reluctantly, but when we gathered 10 people, we found the strength,” she said.
The group said their families have been very helpful, but there are people who talk behind their backs. “People would always talk. There is no job a woman can’t do. The only thing is that one has the courage to do it,” Humaria said.
Famous wazwan dishes include rista, rogan josh, tabak maaz, waza kokur and the best dish gushtaba.
The group created a buzz, especially among the youth, after participating in an 11-day mela under the Village Artisans Society’s Sale of Articles last month in Srinagar. The group set up a stall and served wazwan and also allowed people to take the meals home. “We are in the limelight now,” Humaria said.
Akhter, meanwhile, noted that many mothers have expressed interest in having their daughters take on the job. “They tell us to teach our daughter too. They want them to grow,” she said.
Challenges lie ahead
Now the group is gearing up to cook at weddings, a challenging task given the scale. “We want innovation in wazwan and we are thinking of introducing some new dishes,” said Akhter.
The group also intends to hire men for the hard physical work such as carrying cauldrons.
Eminent writer and poet Zarif Ahmad Zarif said that wazwan, which made its way to Kashmir from Central Asia about 700 years ago, remained the domain of men. Hoping this will change, he said: “These young women have taken an initiative that will promote our traditional cooking practice. People should accept them wholeheartedly.”