Haji Bashir, or “ustad” as everyone in the market calls him, has been running a naan shop near Rawalpindi’s Banni chowk for over 40 years. For as long as he can remember, he has baked and sold “Kashmiri kulchay” at the shop.
The Kashmiri kulcha – a round, slightly salty, biscuit-like snack – is a popular breakfast item in Azad Kashmir and parts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa close to Kashmir such as Mansehra and Abbottabad. There, people eat it with tea in the mornings and there are shops which bake and sell the kulchay exclusively.
In Rawalpindi, it’s usually regular naan shops which bake kulchay as a side business and the scale and extent of their kulcha operations aren’t as fancy as in Azad Kashmir.
But Bashir, who is from the Bagh district of Azad Kashmir himself, knows firsthand that people belonging to Kashmir and the northern areas, who have moved and settled in Rawalpindi, are always in search of their favourite snack and his shop is one of the places they visit to get their fix.
“Mostly Kashmiris and Gilgitis buy these kulchay, but some locals have also acquired a taste for them,” Bashir says.
Sometimes people visiting from abroad buy the kulchay to take them along on their way out of the country, says Amjad Qazi, Bashir’s apprentice at the shop. It’s because the kulchay stand the test of time unlike other bakery products.
“The kulchay don’t go bad because they are dry,” Qazi, who is originally from Muzaffarabad, says. “They can be stored for months.”
Across the road from Bashir’s naan shop, there’s a one-room shop with no signboard up top to identify it. But there’s a small, old glass showcase perched on top of a white table at the shop’s front. The showcase is filled with Kashmiri kulchay.
At the back of the shop near the clay oven, or tandoor, Muhammad Zada is busy making dough for naan. He says he started baking the kulchay two years ago.
“The naan, roti business is not too good in this area, so I started this on the side,” Zada says.
Like Bashir, Zada says his customers are mostly people from areas where the snacks are consumed regularly. But he also identifies an interesting category of clients.
“Diabetic patients buy and eat the kulchay very often, because the kulchay don’t have sugar in them,” he says.
Still the customer base is limited and so is the supply. Bashir bakes a batch of around 10 dozen kulchay every day. Zada prepares even less: around 6 dozen.
“Sometimes customers come and buy two or three dozen kulchay in one go, then I prepare a new batch,” he says.
But that doesn’t happen too often, he says. Also, at Rs120 per dozen, the rate is almost double that of the same product in Azad Kashmir.
Zada says he learnt the baking recipe for the kulchay from an expert, or a “karigar.” That’s because the process of baking the kulchay is quite different from baking ordinary naan and roti. Rather it resembles work done at bakeries.
The kulchay are prepared in a regular tandoor, used for baking naan and roti, but the process is time consuming and requires effort, Bashir says.
First, the tandoor is pre-heated. Then the gas is cut off. The dough is put in the tandoor, covered and left to bake for three hours. The time aspect means regular tandoors cannot bake the kulchay during peak lunch and dinner hours.
At Bashir’s naan shop, the kulchay are baked from 5 pm onwards.
Even the dough is prepared differently.
“It’s a completely different recipe. Unlike ordinary naan and roti, there’s no water involved in preparing the dough,” Zada says. “The ghee does all the baking.”
Ghee and fine wheat flour are the main ingredients used for preparing the kulchay, with just a little bit of baking powder and yeast. Three kilogrammes of wheat flour and one kilogramme of ghee are required for preparing one kilogramme of kashmiri kulchay.
The kulchay might never achieve widespread popularity in Rawalpindi perhaps due to competition from the traditional Punjabi breakfast, but naan shops like Bashir’s and Zada’s make sure enthusiasts of the snack in Rawalpindi are not disappointed.
The story was first published by Waqas Naeem here