The lotus eaters

The lotus eaters

The lotus eaters
Nigeen Lake in Srinagar | Photo Credit: Brinda Suri

The shikara gently makes its way through a narrow channel flanked by blooming mustard fields. The cobalt skies of Srinagar and a sprinkling of snow on majestic Pir Panjal mountains offer a striking backdrop to the play of yellow and lush green.

Spring is in the air and colour is returning to the Valley. Soon, blossoms of almond, cherry, peach and pear will play peek-a-boo. But this season is all about the lotus stem, known as nadur or nadroo in local parlance. It has an enviable place in the otherwise meat-rich Kashmiri cuisine. I’m out on these waters foraging for nadur that will be put to good use for dinner.

Of all the dishes prepared with the lotus stem (it is not the root) nadur yakhni is the star. Slices of it are cooked in curd with a hint of aromatic spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, clove and fennel. The pot remains on the fire till thenadur gets tender, but retains a bite, and the curd surrenders its tartness to transform it into a smooth curry. A flavoursome dish that’s subtle and full-bodied, it’s become a favourite ever since I savoured it at a Kashmiri friend’s place. Served simply with small-grain steamed rice, it spells celebration on the plate. The nadur is also tossed into spinach (palak nadur), deep-fried as fritters (nadur monji) and cooked with fish (gaad nadur).

Nadur being sold on the floating market on Dal lake
Nadur being sold on the floating market on Dal lake   | Photo Credit: Brinda Suri

Ghulam Nabi rows the shikara and he’s confident of locating some lotus-stem diggers. There’s a whole way of life that lives on and off the Dal Lake, behind the row of show-piece houseboats, that most visitors miss seeing. Hazel-eyed children rowing to school wave out to me, a daily provisions market and a walnut wood-craft centre on stilts pops up, a flower-seller and a vegetable vendor row past. I spot a few run-down traditional brick-and-wood houses reflecting lost glory. They have dab (cantilevered wooden balcony) windows with pinjarkari (lattice work). Floating vegetable gardens, an ecological system typical to the Dal, which produce an abundance of organic greens, often come up, and Nabi points out to beds of kohlrabi, turnip, carrot and haak saag, a delicious local spinach.

These gardens are painstakingly built from lake weeds which are woven into mats to form the base. Over a year or so, layers of weeds are constantly added to make a fertile patch. Some gardens, called demb, are attached to the shore, while raad are those that can be moved around. If slow living needs a poster illustration, this is it.

A Kashmiri Vegetarian Meal
A Kashmiri Vegetarian Meal   | Photo Credit: Brinda Suri

The tour is to end at Nigeen Lake. When we cross the halfway mark, Nabi speeds up towards a group of men perched on the edge of their boats. “The lotus-stem diggers,” he exclaims triumphantly. This is a set of jolly old men who make their craft appear effortless, as they plunge a hooked staff into swampy waters, dig around with it for a bit, give it a tug and pull it up with a lotus stem securely held by the hook. To me, it seems as thrilling as angling. I attempt it, but realise there are more chances of me toppling into the water than a nadur popping out.

After a gap of three years, there is an abundance of nadur again, which was wiped out from the Dal Lake following the floods of 2014. “I’m back at collecting around 200 stems a day,” smiles Ali Mohammad, one of the diggers, adding, “The texture, size and flavour of the Dal nadur is unmatchable. There are wazas (cooks) who will only use this nadur and nothing else.”

I pick up a whole lot. Some will go into a yakhni tonight and the rest I’ll take home.

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