It is May, wedding season in Kashmir, and I am sitting on the carpeted floor of a house in Srinagar while, all around me, women are chanting: She is so beautiful. She looks like a doll. She’s going to a rich house. They are singing about the bride, Shafia Jeelani, an acquaintance of mine. We are all gleeful, not just for Shafia, but because we’re about to dine like queens. Out in the courtyard, Khurshied Khan is sorting cuts of meat. Tall and intense, Khan is a waza, a caterer whose occupation has been handed down through ten generations. He specializes in the elaborate meal called a wazwaan, undertaken for auspicious occasions such as marriage. His repertoire encompasses 36 courses, nearly all of them lamb. Nearby, his army of cooks tends to copper pots bubbling over blazing logs. They stir stews like mirchi qorma, lamb shoulder swimming in a vermilion chile broth, or splash mustard oil to fry shami kebab patties stuffed with onion and ginger. Others wield mallets, pounding shank meat to a paste for the springy meatballs called ghushtaba, whose appearance in a rich, yogurt-based gravy later in the evening will signal the end of the banquet. Then guests will file out toting decorative plastic bags bought at a bridal shop and distributed empty at the start of the feast, bulging now with the wazwaan’s abundant leftovers, an obligatory parting gift from the hosts.
In Kashmir, wedding celebrations call for the elaborate wazwaan meal