Srinagar: Harisa, one of the most celebrated cuisines of Kashmir, is a delicacy the locals relish for nearly five months in a year to get the extra calories they need to fight the bitter winter cold.
Cooked in huge ovens over simmering firewood heat for almost eight hours, harisa is made of lean mutton mixed with rice and flavoured with spices like fennel, cardamom, clove and salt.
Zahoor Ahmad has been in the family business of selling harisa in the Aali Kadal area ever since he grew up. His father and grandfather had set up the small shop that is still one of the most sought-after harisa outlets in Srinagar's old city.
"It needs expertise and hard work to make the best harisa. From a careful selection of the right mutton to choosing the best quality spices, one has to spend the entire night gently stirring the mixture to bring it to right consistency and aroma", Zahoor told IANS.
Traditional harisa shops are located in the old city areas of Nawa Kadal, Rajouri Kadal, Saraf Kadal and Gojwara, among others. Each of these shops competes for customers and quality. The trade is now also spreading to uptown areas like Maisuma and Rajbagh.
Customers start arriving at the harisa shops at first light.
"Right after the morning prayers, harisa lovers start arriving at our shop. They begin their day with a plate of harisa savoured with tandoori bread," Nisar Ahmad, another harisa seller in the old city, told IANS.
"After pouring the dish on to a plate, we pour hot sizzling oil over it to bring it to the right temperature and flavor. Usually one fourth of a kilogram is enough for breakfast and keeps one warm for the entire day.
"People mostly skip lunch after a sumptuous Harisa breakfast," Nisar added.
A fast-growing harisa shop in uptown Maisuma locality sells the dish mostly to customers from suburban and rural areas who cannot reach the city in the early morning.
"The dish is available at our place till noon as some of our customers have to come from rural areas in the south and the north of the Valley," a harisa seller in Maisuma, also named Zahoor Ahmad, told IANS.
"Interestingly, even security forces deployed in the area for long years have developed a taste for the delicacy. They also come to relish harisa since they see us buying the best quality mutton in the morning and working through the whole night to prepare harisa," he added.
The more affluent families of the city place orders a day before.
"Vehicles line up in the morning to take the dish home. Harisa is a royal dish which has now become a favourite with the average Kashmiri because of economic affluence. A kilogram of the dish costs six hundred rupees and people willingly pay for this winter delicacy", Muhammad Afzal, who lives in Srinagar's old quarters, told IANS.
A tale associated with harisa goes that an Afghan governor liked the dish so much that he did not know when to stop - and overate himself to death!
Bollywood film star, Ranbir Kapoor told a TV show last year he eats harisa almost as regular breakfast which he gets from the Valley during the winter months.
Many housewives prepare harisa at home, but the magic of braving the morning winter chill to enter a dimly lit eatery and savour the dish as the chef serves it straight from the oven is something the homemade preparation cannot rival.
Try this if get a chance. You won't forget the experience!
(Sheikh Qayoom can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and Waseem Shah can be contacted at email@example.com)