Kashur Yakh’n : Melt in the Mouth Lamb Infused with Cardamom, Cinnamon and Fennel
In the spirit of Eid lets talk about celebratory food! I have already shared a delectable Saffron Kehwa from the region of Indian Occupied Kashmir. Today’s food post is a perfect one for upcoming Eid parties and also hails from the same Valley.
Ah! Kashmir. One of the most romantic places on this earth, and also one of the most militarised. Poets and politicians both have laid claim to the paradox that it embodies. Bestowed with heavenly beauty and yet ravaged by hellish politics, perhaps the most quoted epitaph for this valley of mountains and lakes are the words of the 13th century Persian poet Amir Khusro
Agar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast, Hameen ast-o hameen ast-o hameen ast.
(‘If there is a paradise on earth, It is this, it is this, it is this…’)
And what of the food of paradise? Kashmir is no doubt close to my heart, but today I would like to bring some Kashmir into your home and on to your table. Taking influences from the Mughal Empire – who themselves borrowed much from the Persian, Kashmiri cuisine is infused with spices that are at once familiar to the basic Indian palate, yet their particular combinations and use of yogurt and saffon along with the methods of preparation lend a unique flavor not found in other parts of India or indeed any where else.
Writer Tarquin Hall has penned one of the most exquisite and detailed pieces on the ‘gastronomcal adventure’ that is the world famous waazvan of Kashmir. As one of my favourite pieces of travel writing ever, I have gone back to this article over and over again. It’s definitely worth a click even if just for the eye candy that is National Geographic photography! In the Kashmiri language ‘waz’ means cook and ‘waan’ is shop so literally a shop of cooks. It is now the name given to the formal banquet that is served at weddings and other occasions of celebration.
The Full or ‘Royal’ wazwaan consists of 36 courses! It is a patriarchal tradition, the team of cooks, called ‘waazas’ and the head cook called the ‘waaza’ are always men. For a large wedding, they work through out the night for many days straight. Putting up ‘camp’ in the courtyard of a home, they come armed with supplies. Firewood, huge copper based ‘degh’ or pots, all matter of paraphernalia with which to chop, mince grind meat with, all of which require pure muscle power. Nary a modern machine or kitchen appliance in sight.
With recipes handed down through generations, many families in Kashmir have their own favourite ‘Waaza’ who will be called upon on on any festival or celebration. Wazas can attain celebrity status in Kashmir with the famous ones being booked years in advance! The food is served by the wazas themselves and all the young men of the family roll their shalwar kameez sleeves up and help in the bringing to and fro and serving water to the guests who are all seated on the floor on the most beautiful Kashmiri carpets.
I am lucky enough to have had this feast multiple times on my visits over the years, but it still surprises me the number of self confessed ‘foodies’ I have met, who know nothing about Kashmir except that ‘Kashmiri waazvaan’ is on their bucket list! Now, most of the foods cooked in the wazwaan can only be conjured up by the waaza and his team, but there are some dishes that are a Kashmiri household staple. Yakh’n being one of them.
I have mentioned before, I am a no expert cook, but like my mama always tells me – when you have to do something, you will find a way to do it. I wasn’t going to let my first Eid in NYC as a newly married person of Kashmiri heritage go without Yakh’n on the menu.
This was in 2008 and no google search helped me in finding a recipe I recognised as my favourite dish so often eaten but never attempted! So I made phone calls to two different continents in order to get it right. One, my mother in the UK and two my phoophy (paternal aunt) in Kashmir, or I should say – her husband as he is the real ‘waaza’ (not a professional but he dabbles in it!) of the family. My uncle, unlike my mother took my questions very seriously. Like many South Asian mothers – mama told me she never ‘measured’ and that I should just add a bit of this spice a a bit of that. But I learnt cooking the western way and I needed to know my measurements.
So, what exactly is Kashmiri Yakh’n? Well its not like anything else so it’s hard to describe. There is no red chilli in sight yet it is far from bland. Soft pieces of lamb on the bone infused with cardamoms, cinnamon and fennel , added to a luscious, subtely tangy, gravy made with yogurt, fresh mint and fresh coriander. A smattering of dried fenugreek leaves at the end all blend together in a perfect concoction. A Royal treatment for your taste-buds indeed.
I know there are a lot of Eid gatherings being planned this weekend and even the next weekend, try your hand at this for a really impressive centrepiece! I wish 8 years ago I had stumbled upon a blog post like this – someone who is not a super cook telling me I could do it! That I too, could make this dish fit for a Mughal Emperor in my own tiny New York kitchen by following this step by step.
So In honour of the Kashmiris in Indian Occupied Kashmir, who this Eid have been under lockdown and curfew, I would like to share with you one of the most celebrated dishes of the Valley. Please send a prayer their way when you and your guests marvel at the delicacy that is ~
Here’s what you need:
Lamb or Goat Meat (on the bone) this recipe is for approx 20-25 small/medium size pieces. Traditionally a shoulder cut with ribs is used but you can use any on the bone meat.
6 Whole green cardamom pods, slightly split
3-4 Sticks whole cinnamon (if it is a long stick then 2 sticks broken up, if it is small pieces then 3-4 pieces)
3-5 Whole black cardamom slightly split
2 Heaped tbs fennel powder (photo shows whole fennel seeds – these will also suffice however ground is preferred.)
2 tsp dried mint powder
a generous pinch kasturi methi (dried fenugreek)
5 cloves garlic
Thumb sized piece of ginger
For later –
6 cups Full fat plain / greek yoghurt
1 tbs mint powder
Fresh mint and fresh coriander /cilantro
1 small/medium sized onion,
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
Here’s what to do :
Wash meat and put in a large pot, add to it the dry ingredients of the first list. Use your hands to rub everything together.
Add to it the ginger and garlic
Add aprox 2 cups water (no more)
Put on a high flame, mix,
Cover pot tightly with a lid, to ensure as least escape of pressure as possible. Put something heavy on lid if needed to keep all the gathering steam inside the pot.
Cook the meat and spice mixture till meat is just over 50% cooked.
This took me aprox just under an hour, it could take you longer or less.
Open lid, you should see a broth has formed,
Separate the meat from the stock.
In another pot, heat a generous glug of oil
Add the cumin seeds
let them splutter, you will be able to smell their aroma now
Add to this finely diced onions
Let them fry till dark brown, while they are frying –
Measure the yogurt into a bowl and mix so all of it is smooth.
When onions are ready, using a sieve pour the broth into the onions. Make sure to squeeze all of the excess masala left in the sieve so all of their flavor gets through ( ‘pro tip’ – when onions are done add 1 tbs of dried mint and some freshly chopped mint, JUST before adding the broth)
Garlic should have ‘melted’ into the broth by now
Discard the ‘mush’ that is left in the sieve, the spices have done their job.
Let broth and onions mix, add salt.
Turn flame to low, add all the yogurt . MIX.
This is the important part! you will need to ensure you don’t stop mixing at all, until the yogurt and broth come to a boil together! This could take around 10mins…
Keep on mixing
After two mins, turn hob to medium and continue mixing
After a further two mins turn hob to high all the while mixing
Keep mixing until yogurt/broth mixture comes to the boil.
At this point add the meat.
And you’ve guessed it – keep mixing, till this now comes to a boil. It’s ok if the meat is not totally submerged, but the yogurt/broth sauce should almost cover all the pieces of meat.
turn flame to medium/low and keep the pot on it till meat is tender and falling off bone.
(Its important that at this point you should not cover completely with a lid, Cover it but leave the lid slightly ajar,)
Garnish with more mint and roughly chopped fresh coriander.
Serve with plain white rice. In Kashmir guests are treated to a variety of dishes – one would never dream of making just one dish – there must be at least 4-5 different ones if a guest has been invited for a meal. Kashmiris keep the practice of using their fingers and are adept at mixing a bit of this curry with a bit of that while eating. However this Yakhnie, is almost sacred in the way that it will be eaten separately, with a fresh serving of white rice, untouched by any other dish, in order to savour its flavour without distraction.
#pro tip – Make this the night before as it tastes even better the next day!