Zaina from Koker Bazar, who is in her 70s, is purchasing several dried vegetables at Srinagar’s Sarai Bala. While paying the vendor Mubarak Ahmad Rather, she said no delicacy can replace the taste of dried vegetables.
“Around the year, we pick up various varieties of fresh vegetables, but I have a special liking for dried vegetables,” said Zaina.
“Even mutton or chicken can’t compare,” she added.
Mubarak, the dried vegetable vendor, has been in this business for the past 12 years. Business, usually from November to March, is good.
“These vegetables are consumed mainly during the winter season,” Mubarak added. “The rest of the time, I sell stuff like corn.”
Dried vegetables have been consumed in Kashmir for centuries. People say that in olden times, when Kashmir would be cut off from the rest of the country due to heavy snowfall on the national highway, there would face a shortage of foodgrain and vegetables.
It was then that people began storing foodgrain for months and started preserving sun-dried vegetables for the winter.
“This is centuries-old culture in Kashmir,” said noted poet and writer Zareef Ahmad Zareef. “We’ve been preparing these at our home since my childhood and I’m extremely fond of these vegetables.”
Kashmiri dried vegetables (Houk Seun) include dried tomatoes (Ruwangan Hachi), bottle gourds (Alle Hachi), brinjal (Wangan Hachi), turnip (Gogji Aare), dandelion greens (Hooch Handh), quince (Bam Choont), fenugreek (Meath), lotus stem (Nadur), Iberian knapweed (Kraich), dried fish (Hokhegade) and many other wild herbs like Bumb, Resh Pran.
Many dried vegetables are cooked at religious festivals. There are many auspicious occasions for both Kashmir Muslims and Pandits on which special varieties of dried vegetables are prepared .
“We migrated to Jammu three decades ago, but still have a special love for dried vegetables,” said Veer Ji Bhat, a Pandit migrant in Jagti Jammu.
“Though we have an abundance of fresh vegetables in Jammu, we cook the dried ones during cold weather from December to mid-January,” Bhat said.
Kashmiris keep dried vegetables in sunlight and store them for the approaching winter. Bottle gourds are peeled and cut into round slices or long thin strips and stretched over wooden or plastic trays to dry them. Round slices are usually threaded in long garlands and hung on the front walls in sunlight. Fresh tomatoes are sliced cross-shaped and stretched over trays left drying in the sun to make Ruwangan Hachi.
Fish is cleaned, washed, and kept under the sun for days to make Hogadde.
The method used by Kashmiris is completely unique and adds more than a year to the shelf life of vegetables.
Dried vegetables (Houk Seun) are mainly produced in villages and rural areas due to the fact that the majority of villagers have large lands which they use to produce foodgrain and vegetables. People in villages grow vegetables in abundance.
Those in the dried vegetable business purchase small portions from villagers and supply them to the main dealers in the city.
“Hundreds of people in various villages purchase dried vegetables. Then, dealers like me purchase it at wholesale rates from them,” said vegetable dealer Mohammad Shafi, who has a wholesale shop for dried vegetables at Zaina Kadal.
Experts say that if the dried vegetables retain any small amount of moisture during sun drying or storage, it attracts insects and leads to fungus.
Dried vegetable vendors and shopkeepers say picking up clean and good quality dried vegetables from villagers is quite a task.
“I have been in this business for the past nine years. The best quality of dried vegetables from Budgam district,” boasts Bilal Ahmad Dar, a dried vegetable vendor from Kulgam.
Fish from various rivers, especially from Wular and Manasbal Lakes, dried for Hokhegade, need to be checked properly. They have a shelf life of only two to three weeks.
Culture and history of dried vegetables
The people of Kashmir have been consuming dried vegetables (Houk Seun) for centuries. It was the need of the time, and by the availability of dried vegetables, people were self-sufficient for the long winters.
Before the building of Jawahar Tunnel in 1956 (the only road link to Kashmir Valley to the rest of the world till 2020), the road connectivity would remain cut off for months due to the snowfall. During that period, no transportation of food items would be possible.
So, the people use to store dried vegetables for these months.
Advocates of dried vegetables say they are good for health, especially during winter. They help ward off cough, chest conjunction, cold and fever.
Iberian knapweed (Kraich) is believed to be good for eyesight. Dandelion (Handh) is given to anaemic patients as it is rich in iron. Bumb or star lotus is believed to be good for arthritis patients as it relieves the swelling of joints.
“People regard Houk Seun as a cure for different weather-related ailments such as coughs and colds,” said Amira Jaan, 45 of Nawa Kadal, Srinagar.
“Every member at our home likes dried vegetables and pulses. I am fond of dandelion greens (Hochh Hand) which are tasty and maintain the haemoglobin levels in a person, especially new mothers,” Jaan added.
Dried vegetables are consumed by Kashmiri Muslims, Kashmiri Pandits and tourists alike. Tonnes of dried vegetables are sent to Jammu and Ladakh. The Pandits and the Kashmiris in Jammu are the main consumers of these delicacies.
For decades, thousands of hundreds of tonnes of dried vegetables have been exported to Ladakh, which remains cut off from the rest of the country and even with Kashmir for months during winters.
Thousands of Indian and foreign tourists who visit the Valley buy dried vegetables to have a new food experience. “Every winter, we send hundreds of kilograms of dried vegetables to many parts of the country demanded by many people living there,” said Mushtaq Ahmad, a dried vegetable shopkeeper at Jamia Masjid, Srinagar.
“Many outsiders enjoy the taste and have understood the health benefits of dried vegetables,” he added.
“Iberian knapweed, grown in the wild and locally known as Kraich is dried and eaten as it is believed to be good for the eyesight. Similarly, dandelion, known as hand, is given to anaemic patients as it is rich in iron. Bumb or star lotus is believed to be good for arthritis patients as it relieves the swelling of joints.”
What experts say
Though Kashmiris have been consuming dried vegetables for centuries, the younger generations are not as fond of Hokh Seun.
Many fear that Hokh Seun contain carcinogenic elements.
“That’s a presumption. As far I know, there is no scientific evidence which shows that consumption of dried vegetables can cause cancer,” said Dr Adbul Rashid Shah, oncologist, Kuwait Cancer Centre.
Shah said that constant consumption of fungal food might cause cancer, but that is to be proved.
“That’s speculation. The majority of people in Kashmir who have consumed dried vegetables all their life have not been diagnosed with cancer,” Rashid added.
But Dr Prince Ajaz, gastro surgeon at Sheri Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS), Srinagar, said people should avoid the frequent consumption of dried vegetables and pickles.
“The free radical concentration in pickles and dried vegetables is very high and its consumption has many health hazards,” he said.
“It has been speculated that consumption of pickles and dried vegetables can cause certain malignancies especially colonic but we haven’t witnessed such cases yet,” he added.