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Kashmiris Cut Back on Wedding Banquets in Economic Hard Times - 2004-09-22

It is the wedding season in Indian Kashmir, and many young couples are tying the knot. But the menu for the traditional wedding feast has been limited to help reduce costs for families who are reeling from a 15-year separatist insurgency that has taken away jobs and livelihoods.

This bride has put henna on her hands as women, gathered in a small courtyard, peel baskets of apples and pears for a wedding in Kashmir's summer capital, Srinagar.

The household is happy. It is time to forget the bomb blasts and grenade attacks that have rocked the region for 15 years. And it is time to prepare the traditional, lavish wedding feast known as the "wazwan."

But this time the wazwan - like all others in the last two months in Srinagar - will be less lavish. The feast has been cut to just seven items from the elaborate 20 to 25 varieties of mutton and chicken that Kashmiris had gotten accustomed to serving their guests.

In Kashmir, this is popularly known as "dish control." And surprisingly the region's powerful Chefs Association enforces it. Naseer Ahmed is chief of the union. He says they introduced this as a social welfare measure.

Mr. Ahmed says over the years, it became fashionable to cook a mind boggling array of delicacies, and a lot of food was wasted. Now whether a person is rich or poor, the chefs only cook seven dishes.

He says this helps the not-so-wealthy because people are not forced to empty their pockets to meet social expectations.

The chefs union is enforcing the new code by imposing a $200 penalty on any cook violating the order. After several chefs paid the fine, most people are careful to stick to the guidelines.

Inspectors, like Bashir Ahmed from the chefs' union, check out marriage functions to count how many Kashmiri delicacies are being served.

"One kabab, two tawak maaz, three chicken, four rishtha, fifth rogan josh and sixth gustava, and seventh korma," he says.

The chefs' decision to enforce "dish control" followed unsuccessful efforts by the state government to limit the number of guests at a wedding to cut expenses for families who could not afford the spread.

Kashmir's minister for consumer affairs, Taj Mohiuddin says he passed the order because many families were piling up huge debts to pay for the traditional lavish wedding feast. But there were angry protests by Kashmiris who said large families could not cut their guest list.

Then the chefs union stepped forward with the idea of cutting back food rather than guests. Minister Mohiuddin thinks it is a happy compromise.

"They [chefs] said you have not been able to do it, we will do it. And they have done it. They have come to the rescue of the government," he said. "There is scarcity of mutton and scarcity of food, and about 40 percent of this is used only in marriages in Kashmir. Most of it is extravagant and gets wasted."

Many Kashmiris do not seem to mind - like Pervez Ahmed who is helping organize his nephew's wedding.

Mr. Ahmed says dish control has benefited everyone, and people's expenses have come down drastically.

But the limited menu does not suit everyone's palate. At this wedding, an elderly relative of the bride, Mohammad Yusuf, is not happy that some of the customary delicacies are off the menu.

"That means we have nothing to eat," he complained. "They should control dowry, not guest, nor dish. We are not happy with this dish control."

But by and large the seven-dish feast is gaining social acceptance. Families have cut down on wedding expenses - making the wedding even more an occasion to celebrate.