Away from the numerous bakeries that dot the streets of Kashmir, there is a confectionary of joy and celebration that has its place intact in Kashmiri homes: the roath, something between a cake and a bread, an indigenous Kashmiri bake and a domestic favourite.
Traditional bakes are a staple in the valley’s food culture and there is something for every occasion and for any part of the day. A usual Kashmiri good morning may begin with a buttered lavasas, its flavour enhanced with the mildness of hot nun chai, the traditional salted pink tea.
Traditionally, greetings and celebrations rarely happened without a roath in the room; the modern times see much less of it but it is cherished just as much. Notwithstanding any compromise due to the rising expenses of everything, starting with the very ingredients of the popular bakes, this dearly held treat is one of increased significance as its popularity refuses to diminish.
The art of baking a perfect roath is as much an acquired skill as it is a relearned discipline passed down from generations. Fifty-year-old Munira Bashir sat in her 200-year-old small bakery in Nawa Kadal locale in old Srinagar city and is delighted to share that she never had to wait for an occasion to indulge her craving for roath: “I would have it any time I wished,” she said, “my dad would make it for me for.”
Growing up in a baker’s home, Ms. Bashir was naturally inclined towards this activity. Having witnessed this closely and been involved in this pursuit from a very young age, she is more than well versed with the ways of this practice. She complains that the changed times today have taken away the dedicated professionalism of the bakers and the hired helps.
“When my father worked, he started early in the morning and worked till late evening. 7 pm we closed,” she recalled, “but now, everyone wants to disappear by 5 pm. Back then, local bakeries were brilliant.”
“Ustaad ki izzat nai kartey ab, they do not respect the master like they used to,” Ms. Bashir resents, adding that “now most of the younger generation people don’t want to learn nor work hard. They just want to smoke cigarette and gaanja! The older people knew how to do the job well.”
In a manner this could explain why roath has been disappearing from ready commercial availability, “we do bake it any time but only on order, and that happens rather rarely,” she said. “Everything is so expensive now. Poppy seeds cost thousand rupees a kilo!”
Ms. Bashir baked her first roath at the age of 22 after a happy and fulfilled childhood spent in close association with local and traditional Kashmiri baking. She studied regularly and eventually worked as a naksh (designer). But after militancy gained a stronghold, she had a choice between quitting her job and moving to New Delhi if she wanted to continue. She resigned. Consequently, the changes taking over Kashmir led her to switch tracks and turn to her favourite childhood activity full time.
“I can’t sit idle,” she said.
The tiny shop she is ensconced in today had to remain closed for 14 years on account of militancy and counter-militancy measures—there was a BSF bunker installed in front of her home that forced her bakery shut. Ms. Bashir speaks with softened assertion that the soldiers then stood by in support and protected them during a difficult time when there was a sudden death in the family.
The mishaps of conflict today divide starkly the locals from the uniform-clad but Ms. Bashir recounts that bygone time when once she bound a soldier’s wound with her dupatta and eventually leant that it saved him from dying from a gunshot. “Insaaniat hai [its humanity]”, she said.
Eventually, the bunker was removed and things started falling back in their place but the times had changed significantly. Ms. Bashir is among the many whose children reside out of Kashmir and the newer generations are subjected to the occurrence of special occasions to be acquainted with the delectable roath. “Fewer places make it now but it is not done the right way. Children know little about it now,” she said. “But I make for my grandchildren and they love it,” she announces proudly.
About an inch in height, this rupees 800 per kilograms savoury prepared from a combination of curd, eggs, water, ghee, sugar, flour, and nuts and raisins and poppy seeds adorning its face, remains a favourite among children and no amount of fancy cakes of foreign origin could replace the preference for the good old roath for a Kashmiri, children and adults alike.
Roath may seem to be disappearing fast from commercial availability but in the homes of Kashmir, this local exotica is reserved for celebratory occasions and is as cherished a treat as before.
The story originally appeared in our 6-12 June 2020 print edition.