There are two primary trips you make at the cinema: one from the ticket booth to your seat and another from your seat into the cinematic world of the movie you’re watching. Restaurants are capable of creating similar experiences—not solely by way of decor but by the fare leaving the kitchen.
Both conditions, that of being a spectator and a diner in a restaurant, brim with the possibility of change. Your perspective shifts. You experience a new union of flavors. Suddenly you’re wearing someone else’s shoes.
I stood in my Doc Martens on the third level of One Bonifacio High Street, giddy to find myself in someone else’s shoes, tasting something different—perhaps learning something new.
The mall housing Kashmir’s new outlet is like any block in any of the shoeboxes dotting Metro Manila, but the restaurant glows gently—a warm, coddling palette of turquoise and copper paint flickering under dim lights.
Three sisters who turned mystique into magic
Over 48 years of operations, Kashmir has bloomed into an institution for Indian cuisine in the country. Started by sisters Indra, Kamla, and Sita initially as a way of passing time, Kashmir has traced its branches into the lives of families as something different and as the very first Indian restaurant in the country.
Sita is credited with the recipes served at Kashmir—dishes inspired by the North Indian culinary traditions of which creamy and spicy curries, fresh meats, vegetables, yogurt, ghee, paneer, and dried nuts are characteristic.
Leon Araneta, Kashmir’s silky, flowing shirt-and-kimono-wearing 6’3 new owner, honors the restaurant’s founders by accepting the book of recipes handed to him.
“In 2016, I heard from the son of one of the owners that Kashmir was going up for sale,” recalls Leon Araneta. “I just could not stomach the idea that another culinary institution could be sold for parts, thrown away and forgotten.”
“Having inherited such a wealth of decades-tested recipes from Sita [was] the greatest gift,” he says. “These recipes are the heart of the restaurant. Her food continues to charm our guests to this very day.”
Although the restaurant ownership has changed, the recipes remain charged with the same spirit upholding the idea that Kashmir is “introducing Indian hospitality to Filipinos by turning mystique into magic.”
New stewardship at Kashmir
“In 2016, I heard from the son of one of the owners that Kashmir was going up for sale,” recalls Araneta. “My first thought was, ‘Here is an institution restaurant, Kashmir, the first heritage Indian restaurant in the Philippines where many people first experienced Indian food.’ I just could not stomach the idea that another culinary institution could be sold for parts, thrown away and forgotten.”
Araneta’s connection with mature cultures finds an early memory in his 26 years spent in Mexico where he cross-trained on Saturday mornings, mountain biked, and delighted in Mexico City’s nightlife. His first taste of Indian food, however, was back home, in the Philippines with his Indian classmates at the Asian Institute of Management.
“What made Indian food so welcoming for me was how warm [my Indian classmates] were, inviting me to sit down and eat with them,” says Araneta. “‘Eat this. Try this.’”
Araneta wasn’t the first in his family to have his eyes opened to Indian food. He recalls that his mother-in-law, for three years straight, celebrated her birthday at Kashmir—then located along Pasay Road.
“Parking was a challenge,” says Araneta. “The interiors were interesting but clearly had seen better days and the service, while charming, was inconsistent. But as soon as I sat down at our table covered in dishes of food, I could not stop eating.”
Tangy, spicy, boisterously orange chicken tikka masala, tender and savory mutton seekh kebab, palak paneer, aromatic rogan josh—we imagine the staples of his mother-in-law’s birthday parties spent at the restaurant. These generation-aged recipes remain on the menu even as the new management threads its own additions into the menu fabric.
Tangy, spicy, boisterously orange chicken tikka masala, tender and savory mutton seekh kebab, palak paneer, aromatic rogan josh—these generation-aged recipes remain on the menu even as the new management threads its own additions into the menu fabric.
Classics are accessorized with burger additions, namely the mutton seekh burger and the paneer burger, as well as even more vegetarian and vegan offerings.
“After my own travels to India, I realized that we haven’t even scratched the surface of the wealth of plant-based dishes,” says Araneta. “Being a North Indian restaurant, Kashmir is in the best position to highlight how delicious both vegetarian and vegan food is.”
Hence, the menu now hosts vegan-friendly options: organic mushroom tandoori, dal chana, okra curry, and Kashmir organic green salad to name a few.
Paint splattered on a table
Tables of food at Kashmir loosely resemble Yayoi Kusama exhibits—plenty of color, a few splatters here and there, a little bit of escaped curry staining the tablecloth. The food arrives in a suite of ceramics and bowls, the table water in copper cups. The outdoor seating is dimly lit as the sun paints the sky over Bonifacio High Street cotton candy pink.
A glance away from the sunset unveils a warm interior color palette. Araneta recounts that about 16 colors were selected by Manila-based Spanish muralist Cesar Caballero to give the restaurant depth and to create a beautiful world for guests to find that other, new pair of shoes. “I wanted to create a space that reflects the beautiful, trend-setting side of Indian culture,” says Araneta.
Bangalore and Delhi-based artist Smruthi Gargi Eswar, also known as Smu, provides the cornerstone pieces for the interiors, with art depicting Maharajas from India’s colonial period and famous artists such as sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar and Hungarian-Indian painter Amrita Sher-Gil.
Aside from moving the restaurant from Pasay Road to BGC, one major challenge is evolving Kashmir from a mom-and-pop operation into a professional organization but still keeping that sense of heritage.
For all the new, I found myself marveling at the old—at the attempt at preservation literally keeping me upright. Forty-year-old chairs from the founders’ homes have been refurbished and are still in use at the new location.
My table orders a painting of papadam masala, chicken tikka, rogan josh, organic mushroom tandoori, chicken biryani, and okra fries. Anticipating the swell of my stomach, and hoping to slip out of the myriad worries of modern life, I quickly order one of the restaurant’s signature cocktails, the New Delhi negroni. This time it’s served with the usual bitterness but a hint of Kashmir spice, like a sweet cinnamon note, hovers up above the glass and lands on my nose.
The meal hangs over the tune of lively music, the to-and-fro dance of a conversation, and a world retiring until tomorrow. The splatters of chicken tikka color the table with orange flecks as the salty, spicy, carbon-char smokiness of the mushroom tandoori lingers behind my teeth. The negroni acts as the bitter refresher between nibbles at the plates of food that remain.
Leaving the Kashmir cinema
Gulab jamun, small fluffy bites of saffron and cardamom, and spiced date cakes polish off the evening. The restaurant is vibrating, the way restaurants did before a pandemic cordoned us off into our homes. It was the buzz of people out and about enjoying themselves and trying something new.
We were in our own worlds, fashioned on plates by chefs and recipes that were generations in the making—all refreshed into a new outlet with new options available.
For all the new, I found myself marveling at the old—at the attempt at preservation literally keeping me upright.
When asked about Kashmir’s future, Araneta replies, “I would like to see Indian cuisine become a viable option when people dine out. Filipino, American, Chinese, Italian, Spanish, and Japanese have always been our top options when we Filipinos eat out. I want to add Indian food to that list.”
I walked out of the restaurant and back into the shoe box, a little dazed—the bright lights, my full stomach (it was just one negroni), apparently impeding normal brain function. The movie was over and I was back in the normal world, but I’d caught a glimpse of the culture three sisters brought from India decades ago. Leon Araneta seems to have gotten it right in his quest to make Kashmir “the gateway to enjoying Indian cuisine.”
I quickly look down at my feet to be sure. “Nope, still my Docs.”