Intimate cafes, cloud kitchens: Exhaling with grub in Srinagar


Srinagar, (IANS) Under the cloud-capped sun and the melancholy that accompanies the permanent grey weather of January here; amid graffiti in a script that goes from right to left, the stark contrasts in Srinagar is what makes the spaces in-between breathtaking, terrifying and  blank.

But when you believe that a city can only be found on long walks — alone and abandoned — in places where multiple currents come together — downtown might seem just the right choice — roadside barbecues, shops as old as time… but this is a place for solitary meals, piping hot meat from establishments whose half-erased signboards make a nostalgic’s dreams come true.

To catch the vibe of the ‘urban and mobile’ young, it is the intimate cafes that have come up in the past few years that offer interesting insights.

The air of informality, a promise to sit around, where nothingness is encouraged, it is always beyond grub they offer that they are full most of the time. Several are run by those who have worked across the country with major corporates or aid agencies.


The owners of some may ask before the conversation starts — ‘Is there going to be a political undertone to the piece?’ You say ‘no’ with a smile and think ‘but what is not political?’

Anam Khan, a communications specialist who worked with John Hopkins in their Delhi office and later US Aid was born in Delhi, lived and studied outside the valley (though her mother lives here) before becoming a partner in the well-known ‘Books & Bricks’ cafe at Iqbal Road here, essentially an American diner that serves burgers, pizzas and pasta, with the Lamb Half Pounder being their hot-selling dish.

Boasting a capacity to seat 40 customers at a time, its popularity among youngsters between the age groups of 18-40 years ensures that Khan is always hands-on.

“During my time with US Aid, I had come to cover childhood here and would work in this cafe. I suggested that there should be book readings and other cultural events in this space Infact, I organised the first one and we also witnessed a sarangi player. The evening was magical. I started helping them with the social media.”

In 2019, she came on board. The place was completely renovated and Khan would be here every day — serving, hosting and talking to people.

“I never went back to Delhi,” she smiles. Stressing that the USP of the ‘Books & Bricks’ is the rustic and intimate setting it promises, she feels that there are multiple reasons behind the evolution of strong cafe culture in the city.

“Yes, a lot of people have been investing lately. Considering the fact there are no theatres or art galleries for recreation, so eating out becomes a recreational activity.”

For someone who makes it a point to go to each table and talk to customers in order to ensure that everything is in order, this Delhi University passout feels that opening up more spaces is bound to help the industry.

“I am not threatened when a new cafe comes up. More spaces like this mean the industry evolves. Earlier, our vendors were based in Delhi or Chandigarh. Now most of them are here.”

Mir Toyyibah Ayub was just 19 when she started Kashmir’s first cloud kitchen — ‘Dish You Wish’. Now 22-years-old, this young woman remembers being fascinated with cooking ever since she was a child. While other cloud kitchens might have sprung up in the recent past, hers is still the only one that offers customised cuisines.

“I was the first to get people addicted to fish cooked with sun-dried vegetables. While Tabak Maaz salad might be a great hit, I have always believed in improvisation — like the apricot mutton.”

Someone who always encourages her customers to try out new things, Ayub adds, “So many youngsters are opening up to experimentation. Just the other day, I was asked for Hibachi chicken — a Japanese dish.”

Ayub, who also introduced ‘Tandoori Prawns’ is quite a hit at wedding ceremonies too. “Many people want different starters before Wazwan, and we have loads of options.”

Aghya Ayhan Rathore and his brother who worked with the corporate sector in major metros had for a long time thought about opening a cafe in their hometown Srinagar last year, but it was the pandemic that realised their plans and thus was born ‘The Backyard Grill’ at Rajbagh.

“Well, being foodies ourselves really helped.”

They did not want to buy or rent a place and decided to convert a part of their house into a cafe, hence the name. Offering an option of sitting indoors and outdoors, the duo has focussed on warm lights, much wood and greens and neon lights to give the outdoor space a facelift at night.

Known for their Harrisa, Lamb Steak, Open Shawarma Platter, Minced Mutton Pizza and Injection Burgers, the place also offers special arrangements for events and shoots.

Like Khan, Rathore also believes that it is the personalised experience that is working for them.

“We are always present at the site, connect with our customers. A lot of times we have had the joining of two random tables as the vibe is so friendly. People who enter as our guests go out as our friends.”

Several other cafes like Chai Jhai, Cafe Liberty and Creme Bakery Cafe, too, are attracting a large number of youngsters and tourists.

Cafe Morels, another popular place is known for its Stuffed Chicken Steak and ‘Bubble Tea’ also came into being in the pandemic time.

Iqra Rafiqi, the owner who has always been passionate about food, always wanted to have a cafe that offered a relaxed and warm vibe. Starting operations in 2021, the architecture of the cafe that can accommodate 27 customers inside may be reminiscent of a European place, considering he lived in London before moving back, but it boasts of enough Kashmiri elements to make everyone feel at home.

“When I moved back here, I could not find any options that would provide authentic English breakfast or a cup of coffee that would satisfy my taste. And I was sure many Kashmiris would like to taste international cuisines here. I introduced bubble tea in Kashmir for the first time and the response has been overwhelming.”

Stressing that the people in the city are open to new experiences and cuisines, he concludes, “A lot of credit needs to go to social media. Yes, cafe culture has grown phenomenally, and hope it continues to.”

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