Nadru: The Wonderful Lotus Stem that graces Kashmir’s Kitchens
By Arka Chakarborty
Throughout its millennia-long history, the valley of Kashmir has been eulogized for its breath- taking natural landscape, its rich cultural heritage, its eventful history, its colorful people and, of course, for its cuisine. Kashmir’s plates have historically been adorned by elements from numerous cultures, a result of the valley’s position as a geographic and historic crossroads. This has led to the formation of a kaleidoscopic culinary culture that is a part of every Kashmiri foodie’s daily life and that never fails to awe the taste buds of Indians at large. Still, a few of the countless super delicious dishes have risen to conquer the nation and beyond, defining to the outsider what Kashmiri cuisine is all about.
When a non-Kashmiri thinks of spending a short vacation in the ‘Paradise on Earth’ one imagines starting the day with a cup of sweet Kahwa or salty Noon Chai with a popular Kashmiri bread variety as breakfast, having lunch with the mouth-watering rogan josh or gushtaba as the main course and spending the evening with kebabs. With some remarkable luck, one might even fine oneself enjoying a wazwan with family and friends, an elaborate multi-course meal where each person has the chance to taste a truly impressive number of meat and vegetable dishes along with rice, all the while abiding by etiquettes that clearly exhibits the magnificence and interconnected nature of the valley’s culinary tradition. In general, it is believed that the Kashmiri people lean more towards meat as the staple of their diet, irrespective of religious affiliation. The region’s strong pastoral tradition and cold climate have certainly contributed to this trait. However, this overt focus on meat belies the fact that the Vale has always had quite a prominent undercurrent of veggie delicacies as well, the most iconic of which is nadru.
The Lotus plant is in many ways an intricate part of Indian history and culture, appearing throughout its history as religious symbolism, decorative elements or culinary delights across different regions and communities. Almost every part of the illustrious plant is consumed by Indians in various capacities. The lotus stem, called ‘nadru’ in Kashmir, is itself consumed apart from the region in Punjab and among the Sindhi community as ‘bhein’ and ‘kamal kakdi’ respectively. However, the nadru has a special significance in Kashmir due to its almost universal appeal among the inhabitants of the region and the sheer versatility with which it has been incorporated into the regional cuisine.
According to local tradition, nadru was first ‘discovered’ in any significant capacity in the valley in the fifteenth century CE, when the Kashmiri sultan Ghiyath al-Din Zain al-Abidin went for a leisurely ride in the Gul Sar (now known as the ‘Gill Sar’) lake in the outskirts of Srinagar city. There, he spotted the magnificent lotus flowers and was captivated by their beauty. His boatmen, moreover, harvested some of the flower and included the nadru in the evening meal. The sultan was caught off guard with the subtle, sophisticated and yet unique taste that this mysterious plant brought to the table and immediately decided to expand the natural habitat of the lotus plant into other prominent lakes close to Srinagar so that he could access its flavorful stems more easily. In this context, the invasion of Timur and a number of his retinue including his royal cooks settling down in the valley was fortuitous as they extensively experimented with the intriguing lotus stem in their kitchens and came up with numerous dishes. These dishes were gradually popularized and with the passing of centuries they have found their place in almost every Kashmiri home.
As stated before, nadru is popular among Kashmiris for its sheer versatility. It can be boiled, fried and spiced in numerous ways to prepare a staggering number of dishes. The porous and chewy texture of the lotus stem as well as its porous nature allowing it to absorb flavors easily, moreover, makes it a perfect alternative to meat in several meat-based dishes, which makes it a viable option in times of ritual fasting. Hence, it is natural that in many cases the nadru simple replaces meat in popular dishes. One of the most iconic examples of this is the nadru yakhni, a yoghurt-based chilli preparation where nadru replaces lamb as the chief ingredient. Yoghurt, dry ginger powder, carom seeds, fennel seeds, garam masala, cardamom, black cardamom, cinnamon, bay leaf, gram flour asafetida, ghee and salt are used to prepare this complex, yet mouth-watering delicacy. Comparatively simplistic but equally popular, nader monje is what some describe as a ‘nadru fritter.’ It is one of the most beloved street foods in Kashmir.
It is quite a rare thing when a popular food ingredient is also good for health, in today’s world of decreasing attention towards nutrition. Nadru is one of the elusive items that falts into this shrinking category. Nadru is an impressive mix of minerals and nutrients including copper, phosphorus, manganese, potassium, zinc, vitamin C, pantothenic acid, vitamin B6, fibre, iron etc. Its high caclcium content helps in healthy muscle contraction and heartbeat thereby making for a healthy heart functioning and aids in maintaining good bone density. The high fibre content in nadru helps one combat constipation. The potassium content in nadru helps in maintaining healhy blood pressure. Nadru’s role in maintaining blood circulation and lowering blood pressure indirectly helps in keeping our stress levels down. Its vitamin C helps to form collagen which facilitates in maintaining the strength, rigidity of blood cells, skin and organs. The vitamin B complex and pyridoxine content in nadru helps to maintain one’s mental health and regulate our mood by interacting with the neural receptors of our brain. Pyridoxine also contributes in maintaining our homocysteine level which contributes in heart health.
For years, farmers who work hard to produce and harvest lotus plants in Kashmir have been struggling. The lotus plant’s water-based nature is quickly becoming its undoing as extensive tourism and other factors drain the Dal lake and its other significant counterparts of all their depth and purity. Scientific research has shown that both the area and the depth of the Dal lake has shrunk dangerously throughout the past century to the point that immediate, multi pronged solution is crucial to preserve its heritage. A glimpse of what could happen if the present situation goes on was demonstrated in the 2014 flood, one of the consequences of which was the wiping out of nadru from the Kashmiri market for about two years. The consistent efforts of the farmers has since brought the beloved lotus stem back, but this should be the occasion for the relevant stakeholders to seriously consider measures to ensure the health of the lakes of the Vale which is the basis for a whole ecosystem, including the lotus plant.
Nadru has been a part of the Kashmiri diet for hundreds of years. Its unique texture and quality and, ironically, the importance of meat in Kashmir’s culinary culture, makes it a viable alternative to meat especially in times of fasting, which undoubtedly must have contributed to its universal appeal among the general populace irrespective of boundaries of identity. Whether through the sophisticated nadru yakhni or the simple yet delicious nader monje, nadru has the quality to captivate the hearts of people across the spectrum of culinary preferences. Its numerous and visible health benefits makes it one of the few delicacies that health enthusiasts would heartily recommend. Even so, the beloved stem is now facing crisis as the region’s lake environment continues to suffer. Cooperation-driven efforts on the part of all the relevant stakeholders as well as the people at large are needed in order to ensure that the delicious lotus stem continues to grace Kashmir’s kitchens.