Srinagar: The mild June sun plays hide and seek with woolly clouds in the sky as chef Sanjay Raina walks through the cluster of Bulgarian rose bushes at the Department of Floriculture, Srinagar. Chatting with the gardener in chaste Kashmiri, he enquires about Koshur Golab with a red rose hip (the accessory fruit of the rose plant) in his hand. In one hour, the red bulgy part which contains twenty times more vitamin C than the citrus fruits, will travel to his kitchen in Delhi called Mealability, The Flavor of Kashmir.
Executing high end private events and food festivals worldwide, Chef Sanjay Raina, a Kashmiri Pandit, is well known for his mastery in dishing out exotic gourmet Kashmiri cuisine. He owns and administers the world’s largest Kashmiri Cuisine Facebook group called Mealability. The group has got people from more than 100 countries as members.
Creating a ripple effect with his culinary skills, 2019 has already seen him serving Kashmiri food in UAE and Thailand, with USA and Turkey projects on the way.
Sanjay, a happy-go-lucky chef, with a broad smile on his face defines his love for cooking in a poetic Andaaz.
“Bandish-o-Lafz kaafi nahi hai ghazal ke liye,
Zaraa sa Khoon-e-jigar chahiye assar ke liye…I believe that the two most important ingredients of any recipe are ‘love’ and ‘passion’. Add Kashmir to them, and my romance with food begins. I breathe Kashmir.”
Born and brought up in Srinagar city, Sanjay completed his schooling from Presentation Convent in Srinagar, and later migrated to Burn Hall School. His culinary skills were shaped at the Institute of Hotel Management, Pusan, New Delhi. He currently resides in Gurgaon, Delhi.
His love affair with food began at a very young age. Sunday lunches, special occasions, and family meals – which he says had far more meaning back then helped strengthen his bond with food.
“Kashmir till my college days had an extremely high level of socialising, among friends, neighbours, visitors and others. The fervour of Eid and Herath had one thing standing out…and that was food. Seeing Muslim and Pandit Wazas really excited, and I would always want to make my way into the ‘wur’ to see what’s happening and how it was. My love for cooking started there,” he recalls.
The chef, who has designed the menu for Mealability, says that classic Kashmiri cuisines are still served, and more varieties have been added over the years. “One always tries to contribute with one’s ability towards whatever is dear and close to one’s heart. In my case, food seemed to be the ideal reason to exhibit my ability for harmony, get two beautiful branches of one cuisine under one meal, and present a larger perspective of Kashmiri Cuisine to the world at large. The idea here has been to encourage people from all over the world to make, eat and talk about Kashmiri food, culture and art,” he says.
The kitchen is, Sanjay’s lab for trial and error as armed with various ingredients, he tries out different pairings. He is not alone in this endavour. His team consists of Kashmiri Muslim and Pandit chefs, who continue to share the culinary space together and dole out different type of food varieties.
“I have always believed that we are Kashmiris first, and while our traditions maybe somewhat different, our culture, language, food, habits, and the human within is the same. I have only made them feel and believe that we all are one, and it is that oneness that makes them a great team of mine,” he says.
On his recent food trail, Sanjay met Chef Naeem from Muzaffarabad, Pakistan at a hotel in Khaimah, UAE and immediately felt a connection.
“I was in Ras Al Khaimah at The Hilton Hotel for a destination wedding where Kashmiri food was a major part of every meal on all the days. One of the Chefs there caught my eye, and it seemed as if there some connection since he also had a similar reaction. Both of us walked towards each other and asked each other where the other was from and the answer was same.. KASHMIR,” says Sanjay breaking into a warm smile.
Asked what distinguishes him from the crowd, Sanjay replies, “What is being lost in the bargain is the human touch and that sense of hospitality from within. It is not just about one’s love for cooking, it’s equally about one’s love for feeding.”
He believes that a very high level of “passion and hospitality” are inborn traits and attributes. “These two really distinct me from the crowd,” he concludes.