Masrat, 17, and her brother Shahid, 12, head out early in the morning towards the banks of Anchar lake in Srinagar’s Tiploo Mohalla. The shivering cold is undaunting for the two siblings. From a small tin shack there that the family owns at the lake’s shore, the two take out gutted fish in small wicker baskets and spread them about on a pile of dry grass. Up until the afternoon, the two siblings remain involved in roasting the fish that is called phaer in its smoked form by the locals.
Phaer is not a run-of-the-mill smoked fish that you can get at any fancy restaurant. It’s a traditional winter delicacy prepared in a particular method by only a few remaining households in Srinagar’s Tiploo Mohalla. Ever since they learned how to fish in their crystal lakes and bubbling rivers, the people of Kashmir have been in love with its taste.
Pertinently, the fish that is prepared by the two siblings are peddled by their father, Fayaz Ahmad Tiploo, in a wicker basket on the streets at Srinagar’s Khanyar area throughout the next day. Fayaz, due to his engagement, is never available to help the children.
In the afternoon, Masrat and Shahid return home for lunch. While Masrat does the household chores, Shahid either rests or catches up with his friends in the locality. By the evening, both return again to the tin shack by the lake and clean the guts of the fish that have to be smoked the next day. They stay at the shack late into the evening.
Nine years ago, the children lost their mother to a deadly disease, and have now both dropped out of school; Masrat in 9th standard and Shahid in 6th. They help in the family business and their efforts are pivotal in ensuring that proper food reaches to the mouths of their family of five.
Masrat learned to smoke the fish from her grandmother, but after the old woman's health deteriorated significantly, the deed fell on her shoulders. She has been preparing the fish for her father’s sale for the last two years now. Recently, her brother Shahid was also pulled out of education by the family to help her. Despite his little age, Shahid too shows a strong sense of responsibility towards his duty.
Since there are only four families left into the making of phaer, the children’s efforts also ensure that the delicacy reaches the kitchens of thousands of households in Srinagar and far during the winters. The phaer for its potency to warm the body and its unique taste is considered one of the best winter delicacies in Kashmir. According to Fayaz, some people are so hooked to the taste of the phaer that they ask their relatives in Srinagar to send them the fish to various Indian states and abroad.
Abdul Rashid Hakeem from Khankah area of Srinagar has been buying the phaer from Fayaz for the past eight winters now. Even before Fayaz entered the business, he had already been his mother’s customer for nearly twenty years at that time.
“The family’s fish is better tasting, properly smoked, and good in quality,” Hakeem says while speaking about the good quality smoked fish prepared by the family. Hakeem further adds that with the arrival of winter, it becomes a regular ritual for him to look for Fayaz at Khanyar junction and buy the fish from him. For Hakeem and his wife, the winter is incomplete without the phaer.
However, Hakeem and his wife are not alone in their fondness for the phaer, Fayaz has hundreds of other regular customers who buy the fish from him every once a week or in a fortnight. The other male members from the remaining three families at Tiploo Mohalla that are involved in peddling the phaer that their women prepare, also say the same.
Unfortunately, only the older generations are aware of the delights of this traditional smoked fish. According to both Hakeem and Fayaz, the phaer does not have an appeal amongst the younger generations.
“It’s a treat for us (the old generations) but the new generation does not seem to have a taste for it; probably because we have failed to bring it in a right way to them or maybe because the production has significantly reduced and lots of families couldn't procure it,” Fayaz adds.
Surprisingly, there are various types of fish that are used in the making of the phaer, including Glass Khar, Silverfish, Chana, and Kashmiri Trout. A special kind of fish called the RopuidGaad, with golden scales and silver fins is mostly used.
Previously the fish used to come from the Anchar lake itself, but nowadays, the marine population has tremendously decreased due to water pollution and the majority of the fish come in white Styrofoam boxes from outside the valley.
“The fish has a different taste and many people are hooked on it. It can be cooked with Haakh (Collard Green), Radish, and other vegetables. It can also be put into the pickles,” Masrat said, but according to various confessions, many people choose to cook the fish in their own way and have come up with their own recipes for the fish.
The phaer does not go in all seasons. Only winter is considered the best season to consume the smoked fish. At the onset of the spring, the last remaining four families from Tiploo Mohalla that are involved in the making of phaer, stop the deed and engage in other activities. People do not consume the phaer during the warmer seasons.
The fish is smoked on dry grass called Thether in local parlance. From September onwards to ending October, Fayaz and his family spend hours in the marshes of the Anchar lake to cut the grass.
Farooq Ahmad Tiploo, the head of the family at Tiploo Mohalla that used to prepare the phaer on the banks of Anchar lake says that he used to sell the phaer at GaadeKotcha, BohriKadal.
“There is a particular grass that is ideal for its prepration,” Farooq added while referring to the Tither grass that is used in the preparation of Kashmir’s legacy smoked fish.
“Those days, we used to roast around one ton of the fish, and people were particularly drawn to the delicacy. But nowadays, the few families that are involved in the making of phaer do not prepare more than fifty kilos a day. The demand has significantly reduced,” Farooq says while lamenting the loss of fish’s appeal amongst the people.
Since earlier, the demand was high, the earnings were also good. Nowadays, the scenario has changed and the last remaining four families that are involved in the trade do not make enough. If anything, better comes, the families wouldn’t even blink at leaving the trade.
“My mother married off her eight daughters and the money for it came from this very trade, but now the situation is as such that I can hardly make enough sales to get my family through the coming summer. So, in the summer, I do other work,” Fayaz adds while speaking on the woes of his trade.
Like his children who have lost their mother, Fayaz too had lost his father at a very young age and his mother had to raise 10 children on her own. This is the reason why he resonates with the same pain that his children exhibit at the loss of their mother.
His mother sold the phaer for fifty years at this same junction where Fayaz commences his business nowadays. During the summer, Fayaz sells ice cream on a cart outside the SKIMS in Soura, and this too, the family prepares at home.
Despite his repeated attempts, Fayaz has failed to secure a sweeper or a security guard’s job for his older, college graduate son at the local hospital. The youth has been now put into the copper work by the family.
The family is striving hard to make the ends meet. Masrat says that when the spring comes and the family would stop preparing the fish up until the next season, they would put shahid into some work as well because the money is very short. Also, the costs of the fish are regularly increasing and the profits are slimming every season.
Masrat is already betrothed, and she fears that once she is married, her family too may stop making the phaer. In any case, the thinning profits are becoming a deterrent for the family to continue into the profession.
With Masrat’s marriage, the legacy fish may suffer a major setback, but like all good and pure things, hope cannot be given on the phaer. Maybe, like many other Kashmiri legacies, the phaer too may find its heroes from amongst the Kashmiri youth.