Feasting on breads that will give French chefs a run for their money.
Exploring the city of Srinagar on foot has been one of my most profound experiences. Its customs are not lost on a curious mind like mine, more so during the holy month of Ramzan when I can tell where the next baker is located by simply following the sweet smell of cookies and breads wafting through the air.
Local bakers of Kashmir, also known as Kandurs, don’t have a free moment all round the year. But Ramzan is especially busy as requirements increase and hours of operation change to align with fasting schedules. There are at least 2-3 local bakers in each locality. A Kashmiri’s day starts with one of these breads, or as they call it rotis, downed with Lipton chai (regular tea), noon chai, or Kahwa.
A fresh batch of gheyv czhot
On a normal day, the bakers prepare rotis in the morning. However, during Ramzan they make them twice a day, afternoon and evening. These breads are made with special ingredients to keep them soft and savory for the feasting. A local baker, Mohammad Sidiq Sofi who lives behind Hazratbal Shrine says, “We bake over 3000 breads everyday, and they are sold out before 4pm.” Locals even leave their baskets with them to safeguard their ration.
The most common variety of bread is called the czhot. It’s made of maida (refined flour), milk, and sesame seeds, with the baker’s fingerprints on it. The dough is glazed with milk before being popped in a tandoor to give it a golden color. Another variant of it, known as gheyv czhot, is made with a generous dollop of ghee and is usually consumed at the time of Sehri coupled with piping hot noon chai (salt tea).
Tasting czhot from the local bakery in Dal gate
As I was talking to the local bakers, sampling their breads in between conversations, I could tell how happily exhausted they were. 24 year old Bilal says they make different varieties for their customers during Ramzan. “We want them to have fresh and tasty rotis after a long day of fasting. A change in diet calls for a change in taste.”
Another common type of bread that sells like hotcakes during Ramzan is kulchas speckled with a layer of poppy seeds called shirmal czot. These are usually consumed after night prayers. They go really well with noon chai and melt in the mouth, releasing all the flavors.
Though some prefer to munch on katlam, the flaky bread deep fried in searing oil. While Katlam is consumed all year round, sales increase during Ramzan month, reveals a local seller in Srinagar.
Katlam, a crunchy flatbread deep fried in oil
As I was walking near the markets of Hazratbal shrine, I could see people queueing up outside Kandurs. I asked a local resident what was going on. He explained that the Kashmiris start preparing for iftar from noon. “We come early to pick up our orders of customized breads,” a resident from Khaniyar told me. “Some prefer extra ghee while others want more poppy seeds.”
Kulchas sprinkled with poppy seeds
If local bakers are ubiquitous, so are new and modern ones that are taking a fresh spin on the traditional breads. When I asked these bakers whether they fear losing their business at the hands of modern bakeries, Sofi adds confidently that kandurs are here to stay. “Kashmiri bread is our culture and no modern bakery can replace it.” Mohammad, a local baker at Dal Gate, Srinagar says, “This tradition has its own charm and place in the lives of Kashmiris.”
Srinagar is dotted with Kandurs, local bakers of Kashmir
The choice of bread is not just about the palate, but more based on what time of the day it’s consumed. For instance, tchvoar is a type of bread that many Kashmiris like to eat in the afternoon with salt tea. However, since people are fasting from dawn to dusk, these breads are discontinued during Ramzan as nobody buys them.
Bakerkhani is not a very popular option during Ramzan
I personally love czhot, it’s extremely versatile and tastes divine with a cup of tea. I also love bakherkhani, a puff pastry that’s not very popular during Ramzan. But the one that scores the most is lavaas or lavasa, a flatbread that I ate with an assortment of chutney and succulent mutton chops. And the place to eat it is Khayam chowk in Srinagar, a hub for mutton and chicken barbeque and a go-to place for post-iftar indulgence.
Exploring the local bakeries in Kashmir not only gave me a true taste of their culture, literally and figuratively, but also a look at the rituals of fasting during Ramzan.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.
By Kanika Gupta
Photographs by Kanika Gupta
Cover photo credit: Yash Bandi