Cooking against the theft of time
An essay and recipe for tsyot. Words and photographs by Uzma Falak.
Good morning and welcome to Cooking From Life: a Vittles mini-season on cooking and eating at home everyday.
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Cooking from Life is a Vittles mini-season of essays that defy idealised versions of cooking – a window into how food and kitchen-life works for different people in different parts of the world. Cooking as refusals, heritage, messiness, routine.
Our thirteenth writer for Cooking from Life is Uzma Falak. You can read our archive of recipes and essays here.
Cooking against the theft of time
An essay, and recipes for tsyot. Words and photographs by Uzma Falak.
I have my grandmother’s palate. We don’t eat chicken. Tomatoes, always. Chillies galore. As a child, I watched her mobilise marginal leafage, like radish and turnip greens, into the pièce de résistance of the meal – gently sautéing them, sometimes adding an egg or two as reinforcement.
In late autumn, my grandmother would make vaer with a sense of profound fulfilment. A laborious process unfolding over several days, vaer is made from ground red chillies, garlic, shallots, coriander seeds, fennel seeds, dried ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, salt, cockscomb, saffron, and oil, which are all ground and mixed together, then shaped into cakes and dried. When these blood-red toroids were left for drying on sombre black-and-white newspapers in the attic of our home, they had me spellbound.
When winter approached, my grandmother led a mission to sun-dry vegetables. She would thread, using a thick darning needle, discs of turnips, bottle gourd and quince into garlands. She also laid arrays of aubergines and tomatoes onto a cloth and placed them on the balcony, leaving them to bask, leisurely, in the sun.
Growing up in Kashmir, ordinary acts of cooking and eating were rendered extraordinary. Our lives were lived from curfew to curfew, siege to siege. During cordon and search operations, military troops frisked each corner, cabinet and cupboard. They searched under the carpets and over the roofs. Our homes became battlegrounds.
The troops would overturn rice and flour canisters, sugar and spice jars; they’d spill oil, leaving the kitchen in shambles. ‘The sight of our stockpiled grains would enrage them,’ a witness from the time recalled.
Even today, people have enduring memories of their last meals before they left home, never to return. There are stories of cups of tea turning cold and best of meals left untouched, as days and nights crumbled into terror and mourning.
It was a winter evening, and I must have been three or four. Ammi had cooked haakh and tsamayn – collard greens with fresh acid-set cheese – to eat with rice. But as we sat down to eat around the dastarkhwan, there was commotion outside. We heard a chag, the sound indicating mayhem, cordons and crackdowns, with the sudden disruption marked by the arrival of military jeeps and troopers, and people running helter-skelter before an eventual, eerie quiet.
We packed our cooker with the food in folds of warm layers, like a newborn wrapped in a blanket, and abandoned our home. When we finally arrived at one of my father’s relatives’, we gathered around the dastarkhwan in their dark kitchen. In the feeble light of a candle amidst the power outage, my mother unwrapped our fugitive haakh and tsamayn.
Even today, this warm winter meal, consumed in suspension, is one of the heartiest meals I have ever eaten. I still remember the texture of the haakh in fellowship with the tenderness of the tsamayn. Years later, I found out that when we had returned home after two days, it was to desolation and mourning. That two people had been killed in a nearby neighbourhood on the evening we evacuated our home.
My grandmother and I both swear by her radish and walnut tsyot, which, even though a side dish, can easily oust the entrée. She usually made this condiment with green chillies, table radish, walnuts, coriander and mint, and with or without curd, all ground in a mortar to a radical inclusivity, rather than integration.
Every Friday, my grandmother would walk up to the nearby greengrocer to pick up fresh ingredients for the tsyot. These short trips would also mean running into her friends and talking vivaciously about the freshness of the produce or the grocer’s temper, or complaining about the growing price of chillies and coriander, as opposed to them being complimentary with a purchase, like in the good old days.
To make tsyot, she first thoroughly washed the fresh ingredients and shelled the walnuts. Then the kitchen would resonate with the rumble of her pestling in the stone mortar, her body in sync with its rhythm, as if summoning the gestures of the stone carver who shapes these mortars out of dever chiselled from the mountains.
She used, with efficiency, the heart as well as the edges of the mortar, and one by one the ingredients – no measurements except intuition and experience – were ground. Then she added salt and red chilli powder, as per her preference. She divided this mixture into two portions – with and without curd. When she finished, usually by noon, she left with her friend for the masjid.
On my grandmother’s return, we would sit along the edges of the dastarkhwan to relish the tsyot, which was eaten with one other main dish and rice. Perhaps this tsyot, from those Fridays, was the first thing I learnt to make when I was growing up. And today, in my kitchen in Germany, it is still my go-to relish.
In fact, one evening last year, when my aunt phoned me to say that grandmother was in the hospital, I made a version of her Friday tsyot in my mini mortar. I sat by the edge of my bed, rendered immobile by my phone on its charging cable, listening to the hospital sounds on the other end of the line. I wept thinking about what my grandmother told me years ago: ‘Yours should be the first pouring (of water) in my funeral ablution.’ And more recently, ‘Come back already, I am just waiting to die.’
As I summon the memories of my childhood, I look at photographs from Kashmir in the 1990s that bear marks of violence, rescue and survival. I look at a family holding, as evidence, bullet-ridden copper kitchenware: a bushkab, a toor, a samovar without a handle which has been rescued from ruins, remnants of a charred house in the background. I look at an elderly woman sitting in the courtyard of her burnt home, with a kanz (or stone mortar) sitting at the right edge of the photo, as if a witness to her lost home.
These photographs are evidence of how our time is marked by permanent deferrals, suspension and waiting, and the constant recalibration and reconfiguring of our lives.
The everyday dastarkhwan in several households in Kashmir is adorned with floral patterns and quatrains in Urdu. One of them goes:
حق ادا جس نے کیا مہمان کا
دوںوں عالم میں رہے گا سُرخ رو
فرض یہ انسان پہ ہے انسان کا
کردے عالی ظرف دستر خوان کا
Haq ada jis ne kiya mehmaan ka
Donu alam mein rahe ga surkh ru
Farz yeh insan pe hai insan ka
Kar de aali zarf dastarkhwan ka
One who honours the obligations towards a guest
Will be exonerated in both the worlds
This is our duty towards one another
To uphold, in grace, the etiquettes of the dastarkhwan
These spreads and the Urdu verses, are also part of Muslim dining practices in India.
Over the years – with beef lynchings, mosques and libraries set on fire, homes vandalised and bulldozed – the othering of and crackdown on Indian Muslims has intensified. As I write this, biryani shops are being targeted close to India’s capital. The Urdu language, even though it originated in South Asia, is relegated as foreign, and its script one of ‘terror’ – in 2012, for instance, police used the poetry of the nineteenth-century Urdu poet Ghalib found on a member of a banned student’s organisation as “evidence” against them, to vilify and implicate them further.
Even though Urdu is not among Kashmir’s native languages, dastarkhwans with poetry are commonplace in the region. The act of sitting together and sharing our meals on these colourful spreads is an enactment of refusal and affirmation.
And so are the culinary repertoires of care, survival and persistence in Kashmir, such as my grandmother’s slow process of making vaer, or tsyot – acts of reclamation against the theft of time.
Tajj Begum’s Friday Tsyot
Note: I tend to go a little overboard with walnuts and green chillies. Also, I hear my mother’s voice telling me not to throw away the coriander stalks, as these are transformative to the tsyot. Versions without fresh coriander and mint also exist, but for me, both of those things are indispensable to the dish.
1 bunch of table radishes, about 250g
A handful of walnut kernels, about 250g
5-6 (or more) green chillies, stalks removed.
A fistful of fresh coriander, about 15g
6-8 fresh mint leaves
2-4 tablespoons of curd (better if hung). Or 2-3 tablespoons of yoghurt.
Salt to taste
½ teaspoon red chilli powder (optional)
1. Chop and grind the radishes in a mortar and pestle, then use your hands to squeeze out the excess water.
2. Add walnut kernels, green chillies, coriander and mint and pestle away until you have a coarse paste. You can do this in batches or all at once — depending on how your day is going. Pestling is the best part, you will see. Almost therapeutic. You can use a food processor as well, but, the trick is to not render the mixture too runny.
3. Season to taste with salt and if you like, add a few pinches of red chilli powder.
4. Give it a final pounding then tip the mixture into a bowl. Fold in the curd or yoghurt to soften the sharpness of green chillies, or simply if you like what it brings to table.
Born and raised in Kashmir’s Srinagar, Uzma Falak is a doctoral student in anthropology at the University of Heidelberg, where her research explores Kashmir women’s sonic praxis as an enactment of an alternate spatiotemporal imaginary. Her work has appeared in publications like Guernica Magazine, The Baffler, ADI Magazine, Warscapes, Al Jazeera English, The Caravan, Himal Southasian, New Internationalist, Disclaimer, Economic and Political Weekly, and several edited volumes and anthologies. In 2017, she won an honourable mention in the Society for Humanistic Anthropology’s Ethnographic Poetry Award. Her film, Till Then the Roads Carry Her, exploring Kashmir women’s repertories of resistance, has been screened at the Tate Modern, Karlstorkino, Art Gallery of Guelph, University of Copenhagen and University of Warsaw, among others.
Vittles is edited by Rebecca May Johnson, Sharanya Deepak and Jonathan Nunn, and proofed and subedited by Sophie Whitehead. These recipes were tested by Joanna Jackson.