Will the real Pakistani cuisine please stand up? I have been to no fewer than four hotel food festivals featuring the cuisine of our neighbouring country, and every time the food has been so different that it has not formed a pattern. Deluxe hotels – and it is only they who have the means to have a festival from Pakistan – have issues of their own. They have to invite chefs from a sister hotel, failing which, from any hotel with whom they have a synergy. For most international cuisines, it works perfectly, but for sub-continental cuisines, it is a drawback because the best food really is in the homes. And on the streets. Also, hotel food really can’t match the grittiness of the dhaba.
Which is why I have never been able to make much sense of Pakistani food. Barely does one food festival get over, in which lamb with rich gravies predominate than another one starts, in another hotel. The second one could well feature far more austere offerings, including a generous representation of vegetarian dishes. This, as all my friends who have visited Pakistan assure me, is far indeed from the truth. The third festival that I attended featured unfamiliar combinations of familiar spices and the fourth, at Le Meridien, New Delhi a few months ago, was bold enough to hire two cooks from off the street in Lahore. It was the best of all the festivals I have been fortunate enough to be invited to.
Their finest offering was the chapli kebab. It is not difficult to get chapli kebabs – all my lucky friends have reported having tasted them in Kinari Bazar and Gwala Mandi, both foodie streets in Lahore, as well as chains like Bundu Khan. There’s no doubt that the original makes its way from Peshawar: the chapli is a North West Frontier Province speciality.
I’ve always been mystified by the name. How can anything edible be named after footwear, especially in the Muslim world? So, how does a good chapli kebab differ from an indifferent one? One clue is in the size. It’s supposed to be as large and ill-formed as a slipper. The other is in the outer crust, which just has to be dark and well-fried outside, the better to contrast with the softness inside.
The chefs at Jaypee Continental, fresh from a trip to Lahore, have given me this recipe, which, in turn, was given to them by their Pakistani hosts.
To every 1 kilogram of keema coarsely minced, add 1 tsp. Red Chilli Powder, ½ tsp. Black Pepper coarsely ground, 1 tsp. Coriander coarsely ground and roasted, 1 tsp. Cumin Seeds roasted and finely ground, 4 Green Chillies finely chopped, 1 medium Onion finely sliced, 1 Tomato finely chopped, 1 tsp cornflour, 1 bunch of Fresh Coriander Leaves, Salt to taste, 1 Egg, ½ cup Cooking Oil.
You mix all the ingredients together and keep for half an hour, then griddle fry in minimal oil, pressing down the kebabs to flatten them.
Fun Fact: A friend who returned from Lahore was dismissive of what she called spare parts: brain, liver, kidneys, trotters and tongue.