Haji Asadullah Khan was in the fourth standard when he had decided to follow in the footsteps of his father. He comes from a family of chefs known in Kashmir as the “Shaitan waaz’e”, the devil chefs.
Mr. Khan does not remember when exactly did the family get the title. But the legend in the Khan family goes that the title was given to a family member, many generations ago, who had surprised his patron family by cooking more than five dishes of mutton with a meagre quantity of meat available.
“Asli gasak aasun shaitaan’i (You ought to be the devil),” the old man had, according to the Khan family legend, exclaimed in disbelief of the waza’s supernatural cooking skills, as chefs are called in the Kashmiri language.
Since then, the Khan family has lived up to the reputation, passing on these “supernatural” skills down the generations. Groomed to head the family business since childhood, Mr. Khan is today the fifth generation waaz’e to head the team of the devils dedicated to the art of making the wazwan, the traditional Kashmiri cuisine made on festive occasions.
Mr. Khan is known for his ability to cook nearly two dozen mutton dishes on a single occasion. “People tell us what they want to be served in their weddings,” he said. “We cook according to their wishes.”
Showkat Ahmad, a 50-year-old businessman from Baghi Mehtab area of Srinagar, is one such client who respected the Shaitan Wazas. He has grown up relishing the wazwan made by Mr. Khan on several special occasions, not just limited to the weddings.
The Shaitaan waza family has cooked time and again for Mr. Ahmad’s family over three generations. “Our family has known Shaitaan Waaz’e since my parents got married,” said Mr. Ahmad. “They cooked for their wedding, then for my wedding and now for children’s weddings.”
According to Mr. Ahmad, the family relies on Mr. Khan for the quality and taste of the food he cooks. “Over the years, we have developed a family relationship with him because of the quality, warmth, and respect that he provides his customers with,” he said. “He makes you experience the perfect taste of the cuisine.”
It takes a team of six chefs about 16-17 hours to cook a hundred kilograms of mutton for about 400 guests, said Mr. Khan. If the guest list is long, it even takes more than 24 hours to prepare all the dishes.
The full course of wazwan required the team of waaz’e to carry out different tasks such as the meticulous mincing of mutton down to the right texture, ensuring the uniformity of the size of the chops, to cooking and serving the feast.
But of all the sumptuous varieties of dishes in wazwan, Mr. Khan said that cooking rice to perfection was the trickiest. Once at a large wedding, he said, “the family wanted the rice served to their bridegroom to be really special. So the most experienced chef cooked the rice with milk and ghee.”
The economic woes have indeed impacted the wazwan being made in the Valley today, with chefs attempting to reduce the size of the team and taking up multiple tasks as a result. In the older times, said Mr. Khan, every waaz’e specialised in specific dishes that had their signature style.
“We had a chef who was famous for making the best firni (a milk-based sweet dish made with semolina) by slowly cooking it for the entire day, another used to make the best pulao (spicy rice),” he said. “You cannot get that firni [or pulao] even in your dreams nowadays.”
His own father Ghulam Mohammad Khan, said Mr. Khan, was famous for his barfi–also a milk-based sweet dish. Today, however, that specialisation is missing in the new generation of Kashmiri chefs. “Those chefs passed away and there is no chef like them now,” said Mr. Khan.
Back then, wedding ceremonies would last for merely a day and the feast was limited. “We used to go in the morning and come back at 12 in the night,” he said. “The next day, we would [work at a different wedding].” It paid less but they received more respect from the clients, he said.
In the business for nearly five decades now, Mr. Khan said that the craft is dying slowly owing to cultural changes. If that wasn’t bad enough, the continuous lockdowns since the past year has devastated the economy. “Work has started declining,” he said. “We have hardly done any work and that is the reason why we don’t have many workers with us at present.”
The recent years have seen intermittent bouts of upheavals in Kashmir. The wedding economy has taken a huge hit with several weddings being cancelled or curtailed, the disruption has been more pronounced since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We used to serve around 100-150 guests but now simple functions are preferred,” said Mr. Khan, adding that these days, most marriages had limited the number of guests to about 40 or 50 guests. Consequently, the feast is scaled down considerably, directly impacting their earnings. “People are scared of organizing big weddings,” he said. “In the last year, sometimes, we earned around 4000 rupees a day [on average] but currently we earn much less than that.”
Even as the chefs have not compromised on the quality of their food, the monetary returns are diminishing by the day. “If a cook gets Rupees 2000-3000 right now, even that does not suffice,” rued Mr. Khan. “This is not a typical eight-hour work.” As per Mr. Khan, there were just about 2000-5000 chefs in all of Kashmir.
Earlier, the earnings were enough to handle the family’s expenses and still, every chef could manage saving one to two lakh rupees. But that has changed. “Many times, when people were satisfied with our cooking, they would give the workers a good tip. But nowadays, things don’t work like that because of constant lockdowns,” said Mr. Khan.
As weddings are now being curtailed even further, Mr. Khan said that many were skipping the “mahraaz saal”–the special feast meant for the bridegroom and his family on the night the marriage is officiated, considered the most important part of the wedding. “Since the pandemic, the [economic] situation has been even worse,” said Mr. Khan. “I no longer cook for money, I cook for those who love and respect me,” said Mr. Khan. “Money is not everything.”
Sitting in a corner of a small room in his home in downtown Srinagar’s Kailashpora, Mr. Khan reflected on his decades-long journey. “I have received many gifts after cooking at some weddings like a shawl, a watch, and cap. I even got two gold coins at two weddings,” he said. “I worked really hard for weddings and they realized that.”
For Mr. Khan, teaching the art of cooking wazwan to the chefs under him was important. “They sometimes make big mistakes but we bear with them because it is important. If someone from my group makes a mistake I will do anything to mend that mistake,” he said. “A chef is supposed to have a sharp brain. Our respect means everything to us.”
But Mr. Khan is worried that the glorious traditions of the Shaitan Wazas would end with him. “My children are not as patient as we were, and this job requires a lot of it. Sometimes, we didn’t get money for years but we were patient,” he said, adding that on the other hand, “if there is a pinch of extra salt [in the food], people immediately start questioning our capabilities. This work is slowly ending.”
The story originally appeared in our 7-13 September 2020 print edition.