Kashmiri women break the harissa glass ceiling


Sheikh Hirra is among the first few women who took to Harissa selling, an otherwise male­dominated sector in Kashmir.
| Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

For centuries, it was men who monopolised the culinary skills required to make harissa, a mutton dish which is a sought-after winter breakfast delicacy in Kashmir, copied from a popular Armenian dish. Prepared overnight using the slow heat of firewood in a utensil buried in a tandoor or clay oven, the dish required muscle power, night-long patience and knowledge of spices.

However, women in Kashmir are giving a tough competition to the harissa-goaer or special harissa cooks this winter, with online platforms emerging as a game changer.

Sheikh Hirra is an engineering graduate and a mother from Srinagar’s Hyderpora area. She started the trend of capturing the otherwise male-dominated market for harissa. “Earlier, people would stand outside harissa shops in queues very early in the morning in the old city. My idea was to make harissa available just a click away. The idea did pick up and the sales are going up,” said Ms. Hirra, who now sells in all major districts of Jammu and Kashmir.

NRI orders

Using the internet power of online platforms such as Gatoes and FastBettle, Ms. Hirra has even been able to ship harissa beyond J&K. “It’s getting popular outside. I receive orders from all corners of the country. In Kashmir, harissa is also an emotion. Many Non-Resident Indians place orders for their old parents in Srinagar, so that they don’t have to come out early in the cold mornings to buy. Customer reviews have helped a lot,” said Ms. Hirra, who owns the Fall Winter Harissa brand.

Harissa is a breakfast dish only available in the peak winter months of November to February in Kashmir. People queue up at the crack of dawn to buy harissa in the city, as it finishes fast due to growing demand. This high-protein diet keeps people warm and helps them brave the sub-zero temperatures of Valley winters. Until a few years ago, only men dominated the cooking of harissa at a small number of outlets in the city as it required overnight cooking and constant grinding with a huge wooden pestle.

Armed with technology, women are equal competitors now. Shahida Fazili, 58, a former school principal from the Pampore area, said that her annual shipments of home-made harissa to her two sons in Dubai became a runaway hit among their friends and colleagues.

“Earlier only relatives and friends would approach me. This year, I received an order for 15 kg of harissa from Delhi. People are liking it outside. I am energetic and ensure that my harissa has all the qualities of a professional harissa-maker,” Ms. Fazili said.

Blurring class distinctions

She sees the harissa market fast expanding in Kashmir. “It was a dish meant for upper classes earlier. However, Kashmir is witnessing affluence and harissa demand has also gone up. People want authentic and hygienic harissa, as all in the family eat it. We ensure that the texture is not lost. The grind has to be by a pestle and not a machine. People prefer home-made harissa now over harissa outlets for their meat quality also,” Ms. Fazili said.

Harissa requires at least four to six hours of oversight by the cook. Being laborious to make, Ms. Fazili believes that most working women prefer to buy the home-made dish rather than cook it at home themselves.

Ms. Fazili, who owns the Kashmir Temptations brand, aims to widen her customer base. “So far, I was popular in WhatsApp groups. I plan to move to social media like Facebook and Instagram. I have already prepared 40 kg of harissa this winter,” said Ms. Fazili, who has partnered with her cousin.

Cottage industries

Harissa is fast turning into a cottage industry in Kashmir’s upmarket colonies. As it does not require women to come out or be a face of the enterprise, they find it comfortable to take up cooking dishes, especially harissa, as online startups.

Rehana Khan, a housewife from Srinagar’s Bemina area, only delivers harissa in her own locality and among relatives. “My home-made harissa was popular among my relatives. The word spread and people came for harissa. I take orders only from the neighbourhood. I have already prepared 15 orders this winter,” she said.

In the coming days, harissa sales are likely to go up further for Ms. Khan. With the day temperature dipping fast in Kashmir and night temperature already below zero degrees Celsius, harissa remains a sought-after dish to battle the freezing weather in the Valley.

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