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Traditional Harrisa Food Makers Fight Against Fine Dining Onslaught

© Sputnik / Azaan JavaidMohammad Shafi Bhat has served the local delicacy for more than four decades in Srinagar
Mohammad Shafi Bhat has served the local delicacy for more than four decades in Srinagar - Sputnik India, 1920, 13.12.2022
Besides being the main highlight of breakfast gatherings during winters, Harrisa food has the status of being exchanged as a gift by the families of betrothed couples. Hundreds brave wintry mornings to reach Harrisa shops. Locals argue that Harrisa is not a meal but an occasion.
At 7:30 in the morning, Mohammad Shafi of Srinagar city in Indian Kashmir is greeted by a group of three men who have visited him for a breakfast at his 150-year-old Sultani (Royal) Harrisa shop.
Shafi and his son Umer are the fourth and fifth generation of their family linked to the trade of making 'Harrisa', a mutton-based local delicacy.
“We were about to leave for Delhi. But I wished to have Harrisa before that,” one of the three men tells Shafi, who prepares three plates for his guests.

“Many restaurants have come up in the last few years where Harissa is also served. But our customers have a preference to visit us only, no matter what,” says Shafi with a sense of pride to his customers who were waiting to be served.

For more than 40 winters, Shafi has cooked the local delicacy, spending the long chilly nights following the centuries-old recipe in his quite shop, barely having space for 10-15 people to sit.
The mutton is boiled, melted, deboned, pounded and then slowly cooked by the simmering firewood heat overnight in a large earthen pot with spices.
He opens his shop quite early in the morning, unmindful of the sub-zero temperatures, and comfortably sitting at the edge of the fixed earthen pot - as if it were his throne - and scoops huge mounds of the melted delicacy.
Tens of thousands of people have walked through the narrow bylanes of the old Srinagar city for 150 years to wait for their turn to either eat the mutton-based delicacy or have it packed for their families and friends back home.
Time appears to halt each winter morning at the Sultani Harrisa shop with Shafi following the same routine for 41 long years. It's nothing less than a tradition.
Outside the shop, however, rapid urbanization and the onslaught of capitalism has given birth to dozens of fine-dining restaurants in Kashmir despite facing more than three decades of armed conflict.
Traditional Harrisa chefs, also known as Harrisagaer, seemed to be unmoved, mostly due to their religious convictions. Shafi said the new restaurants serving Harrisa haven't affected his business and that God provides sustenance to everyone. But for many of his loyal customers, the machine of modernity has put at stake the “culture of Harrisa” - not only the dish.

“Harrisa is not a meal. It is an occasion,” said Omar Rashid, a local resident.

“The one thing that made Harrisa unique is that it is available only in winters and in the early morning. Serving it all day and in the setting of chairs and tables instead of making customers sit on carpeted floors makes the whole occasion lose its charm. In our household we have a separate utensil specially used to get the Harrisa packed. The sight of the utensil filled with Harrisa entering our home in the cruel winters is simply irreplaceable. It’s a memory.”
Prominent food writer Marryam H Reshi expressed similar views. She said Harrisa, just like Kashmiri cuisine Wazwan that is traditionally served in marriages, comes with a “marked context”.
“Earlier Wazwan used to be served in marriages and special occasions only. There used to be a build-up and anticipation around Wazwan being served. Now, easily available at restaurants, the cuisine’s quality might not have suffered but the whole culture around it has been impacted."

"Similarly, eating Harrisa is a culture in itself. One must wake up early in the chilly morning, drive to the shop, wait anxiously to be served. The anticipation, the excitement, all of these feelings cannot be replicated in restaurants,” said Marryam. Harrisa enthusiast Akhtar Malik, a finance professional, said that Harrisa eating is perhaps among the rarest of cultural aspects that did not suffer during the long-drawn conflict of Kashmir.

“This of course does not mean the onslaught of capitalism has not taken a chunk of customers from the traditional Harrisa makers. The new restaurants serving Harrisa are located just two-three kilometers away from the hub of Harrisa makers, yet the young prefer to go to fine dining restaurants,” Malik said.
However, for Shafi, the march of capitalism is far from intimidating. For him, the act of having Harrisa is a symbol of defiance in the face of unchecked modernization and the survival of his business is a wish of God. “God helps everyone. One just needs to work hard. Everyone will do good by the grace of God,” claimed Shafi.