Kashmiri chef foraging on precarious ground

THE BEARS WERE dark shapes among the furrowed oaks in Dachigam National Park, a maharajah’s private game reserve turned wildlife sanctuary more than 5,000 feet above sea level on the outskirts of Srinagar, Kashmir. It was the fall of 2018. He had landed in Srinagar that afternoon and was now deep in the forest alongside Kashmiri chef Prateek Sadhu, who had come to pick sorrel, cabbage and dandelion leaves for his Mumbai restaurant, Masque. Officially, the sanctuary, home to snow leopards and what may be the last two hundred hanguls (Kashmir deer) in the world, is closed when night falls. But after two years of foraging, Sadhu had earned the respect of the rangers, and one of them had seen the bears and led us to them for a closer look, warning us to stay together. When a twig crunched under his feet, he put a finger to his lips. He later learned that the Himalayan black bear is among the most savage of its kind, prone to unprovoked attacks and fond of grabbing humans by the head. But for now, we watched them silently in the light rain, more curious than scared, thinking we were hidden and safe.

And we were. The bears, a mother and two cubs, scurried away, and we returned to the dirt road and the open jeep, rocking and rattling until we reached higher ground. Now the valley stretched out before us, green upon green with no mark of habitation, mountains like bare knuckles lined up behind, and long, wet grasses arching in waves at our feet. Kneeling between them, Sadhu carefully plucked dandelion stalks with pointed leaves. Known locally as haandh, they were young and tender and, when raw, tasted like spring water poured into a wooden ladle, with a slightly bitter effect. In Masque, they were anointed with mustard oil and veri masala, a mixture of fervent Kashmiri chillies and spices bought in hard red cakes at a shop in Shehr-e-Khaas, Srinagar’s old city, then powdered, tossed with lime and finally brushed. on fish or lamb, less sauce than veil. Before all this, the vegetables would have to be blanched four times, so that they would not have any memory of bitterness.

The chef as gatherer has been a romantic, even heroic, figure for almost two decades, ever since the rise of his modern archetype, René Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen. Sadhu interned at Noma for a month when he was 24, in the fall of 2010, the year the restaurant topped the list of the world’s 50 best restaurants. He saw how Redzepi had put Nordic ingredients and cuisine on the map, and decided to do the same for his native Kashmir. But Sadhu has a bigger burden: his territory is uncertain. While Redzepi’s Denmark is consistently ranked as one of the most harmonious and contented countries in the world, Kashmir is a conflict zone, a flashpoint between two nuclear powers, India and Pakistan. Hundreds of thousands of troops are concentrated on both sides of the Line of Control, a de facto border that is not legally recognized, and regularly exchange fire. The countries have fought three outright wars over the region; Tens of thousands of lives have been lost.