Kashmiri culture of dried vegetables and breathless fish – Kashmir Reader
Food is a perishable organic substance, susceptible to deterioration due to microbial, chemical and physical activities. The preservation and storage of food, one of the major revolutionary inventions of human civilization, the very condition for man to settle in a place and develop a society, dates back to 12,000 BC. Vegetables of various cultivars produced seasonally in abundance must be saved for consumption during off-seasons for various reasons. Sun-drying, the most frequently used method since prehistoric times, is still widely used for around 20% of global post-harvest production. Drying is used to preserve foods, increase their shelf life by reducing water content and water activity; reduce weight and volume and therefore space and cost requirements for storage and transport; diversify the supply of foods with different flavors and textures, thus providing consumers with a wide choice when purchasing foods. Drying does not improve the quality of food, however, to be appropriate and successful; the food produced must be safe and have good flavor, texture, color and nutritional properties. Increasing the shelf life of foods without compromising the original properties of foods is always essential and challenging.
Pulses are commonly consumed in most countries of the world. The countries of the European Union are the main importers, the main suppliers being China, the United States, Hungary and Poland. Traditionally, Kashmiris also use sun-dried vegetables (Hokh Syun) and fish (Hogaade) to make up for the shortage of vegetables and get the extra energy needed to face the freezing cold of the harsh winter months, especially during Chilli – Kallan. Until a few years ago, the sight of garlands of dried vegetables hanging on the walls of houses across Kashmir was a common sight. These garlands (Aaaras) were made of dried vegetables such as brinjal (Wangan Hachi), tomatoes (Ruwangan Hachi), turnip (Gogji Aare), bottle gourd (Al Hachi), lily rhizomes (Bhoombh or Buem) and the fish (Hogaard). Nowadays, Hokhsyun garlands are not seen anywhere, even in remote villages, but markets remain awash with these items. What this entails needs to be explored.
The use of pulses has undoubtedly decreased over the years, but has not ceased at all. The availability of fresh vegetables all year round via the all-season highway has improved connectivity with the rest of the country, local production of all-season vegetables through successful innovative scientific interventions, better economic conditions and better health consciousness would have led to a reduction in the consumption of Hoch Siun. Unfortunately, baseless doubts have been created in the minds of consumers regarding the safety of pulses. There is no doubt that exposing vegetables to uncontrolled ultraviolet radiation during sun-drying makes them more susceptible to aflatoxins and fungi which can be harmful to human health. However, sun-drying alone cannot be the incriminating cause of vegetable safety, even if it exists, because food safety depends on a series of events from production to consumption.
The reported presence of carcinogens N-nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA) in sun-dried foods and fish, along with the highest incidence of gastric cancer, have raised worrying suspicions in the minds of Kashmiri people regarding Hokh Syun’s safety. The situation is further aggravated by the report that the particular dietary habits of Kashmiris, such as frequent consumption of hot chai at midday, heavy consumption of pickled Haach (Brassica olerecea), dried and smoked fish (Hogaarde/ Pharegaade), dried vegetables and additional spices plus red chilli cakes (Wur) are believed to be one of the reasons for the increased risk of gastric cancer in the valley. Thorough scientific studies must be conducted to arrive at reliable results, rather than just depending on a few trivial epidemiological investigations, to decide the fate of these dried vegetables. Any culture developed over a period of hundreds of years in accordance with geoclimatic conditions is always tested by time and cannot afford to be abandoned so easily, also at the cost of identity.
Nutrition is an important part of disease prevention and treatment. Nevertheless, the consumption of Hokh Syun continues unabated in the valley, especially during the Chillai-Kallan period, despite the changes brought about by the affluence of the middle class, modular kitchens, microwave ovens, frozen foods and high-end restaurants. The people of Kashmir still prefer to savor the taste of these traditional sun-dried vegetables and fish, even when fresh food is available all year round in the valley. Addiction to these winter recipes is not unfounded. It is believed that the consumption of a large number of fruits and vegetables containing vitamins and minerals like calcium, vitamins A and C reduces the risk of cancer in the human body by protecting the mucous membrane against the effects caused by the compounds carcinogenic. Dehydrated vegetables are full of vitamins and minerals, therefore a good weapon to fight against hidden hunger, a predisposing factor to many morbidities. The loss of certain volatile nutrients like vitamin C and beta-carotene during sun-drying of vegetables can be minimized by dehydrating at lower temperatures or pre-treating with safe chemicals, and offset to a large extent by adding the value. Additionally, research-based evidence is available that a high fiber diet may protect against breast, ovarian, endometrial, and gastrointestinal cancer, but with a caveat that for the prevention of cancer, the focus of dietary recommendations should be on a model diet rather than an isolated dietary fiber supplement.
The Kashmiri dried vegetable, rich in fiber, in addition to having other medicinal values, can also relieve constipation: it is now scientifically proven. Also, people consider dried vegetables as medicine for other diseases, for example, dried gourds (alhech) for cough and cold, hand hooch (dried dandelion) to increase hemoglobin level in new mothers, bumb (dried water lily rhizome) for arthritis, in addition to generating much-needed heat in the body during the harsh winter. Eating sun-dried vegetables without any preservatives once or twice a week is not harmful to health, as no scientific evidence has yet been found regarding sun-dried vegetables causing harm.
Mouth-watering winter recipes would continue to be used for their taste, flavor, medicinal values and to counter soaring vegetable prices during winters, thus preserving our rich and unique culture. Local people should make all the necessary interventions, starting with the development of highly nutritious and disease-resistant vegetable cultivars, and innovative, cost-effective and well-adapted to our geoclimatic conditions, scientific drying and preservation methods to keep these vegetables safer and more nutritious to maintain the sanctity of our culture and make it cosmopolitan in its distribution. New drying techniques such as hot air drying, osmotic dehydration, ultrasonic assisted osmotic dehydration, microwave assisted hot air drying should be introduced, popularized and supported for the production of products health practices that mimic the properties of fresh produce. Many factors such as the type of raw material, available equipment, consumer demand for a high quality end product, economic and environmental conditions must necessarily be taken into account before venturing into an entrepreneurship of this type. Marketing avenues should be explored and generated across the globe to promote authentic Kashmir Hokh Syun. All media should be tapped to increase the popularity among the masses regarding the usefulness and safety of the forgotten and appetizing winter recipes of Kashmir. The revival of the much-loved Hukh Syun can be made possible through the concerted efforts of tourism departments at central and local levels by organizing Kashmiri cuisine festivals at regular intervals to popularize this cuisine. Food critics and bloggers can also play a major role in advertising these delicious and nutritious recipes. Social media with enticing photos can leave an indelible impression on people’s minds.
We would be better served by the continuation of our traditions. Time will prove us wiser, inchallah.
—The author is Chief Scientist and Head of Veterinary Clinical Complex Division, FV Sc. & AH, SKUAST-K, Shuhuma Alusteng. [email protected]