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FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Red-hot bhelpuri By P. Nasir
If you grew up in Karachi and have visited Saddar you couldn’t have missed the little shop outside Bohri Bazaar on Dr Daudpota Road, opposite the Tit Bit Bookstall and the Parsi Temple. This is the Sailani Bhelpuri and Chaat Shop which has been around for 54 years or so, the shop-owner Abdur Rehman proudly told me as he handed me my a plate of crunchy, tangy bhelpuri.
From this tiny Saddar shop, the popular snack of Gujrati origin has gone upscale to reach stylish chaat shops in Defence and Clifton, and even the high-tea menus of five-star hotels. So what is so special about bhelpuri?
It enjoys an iconic status in Western India. While for some it is synonymous with Mumbai beaches; others swear that the best version comes from Gujrati food outlets in Southall, Tooting or Wembley in London, or Chowpatty in Mumbai. But in Karachi the best bhelpuri, in its most original version, is available at Sailani’s in Saddar.
Thai and Mexican food is considered fiery hot and spicy, but, perhaps, not for us in the subcontinent because the hottest fare is available right here on the streets of any city and town in the subcontinent. Bhelpuri is the ideal stuff for someone looking for absolute taste and fast food at an affordable price.The wonderful mix of sev, papri, puffed rice, a dash of spicy green sauce, with spoonfuls of tangy tamarind and date sauce, finely-chopped onions and coriander, and an optional helping of red-hot spicy cubed-masala potatoes, toss and turn and the concoction is heavenly.
In the days when people went either to Tariq Road or Saddar to buy almost anything and everything, I remember childhood trips to Bohri Bazaar with my mother to buy unstitched cloth, cosmetics, pots and pans, or to exchange comics at Tit Bits Bookstall, my reward in the end would be a trip to the bhelpuri shop. To kill the fiery spice, a chilled soft drink would be the ultimate treat. Holding the small steel plate and shovelling spoonfuls into my mouth, I would look around at other people squeezed on a little two-seater placed in an L shape with a three-seater. While women and girls would squeeze in the tiny little seating area, surprisingly I would notice several men stopping for a plate of bhelpuri which they would eat even if they had to stand on the pavement under the blazing hot sun.
Bhelpuri is served fast, is low in fat, nutritious and delicious. What more could you ask for?
The man concocting one plateful after another and handing them out to customers would hardly ever get a plate back for requests of more chutney, which always fascinated me that he must be so deft and his mixing of the various ingredients so perfect, which makes the bhelpuri as delicious as possible.
Perhaps a bit like Thai food, bhelpuri has a combination of flavours and textures: sweet and sour, spicy and crunchy, tangy and soft. The flavours in bhelpuri essentially come from the green and red sauces that liberally coat the papri, sev and puffed rice somewhat like a salad dressing. The spicy green sauce has green chilli, coriander mainly, and other mysterious ingredients that Abdur Rehman keeps mum about, while the tangy red chutney is on the sweeter side as it has dates, tamarind, red chilli, molasses, cumin and more magic ingredients that are a secret part of his successful recipe.
It is not just the taste but a play of textures as well. Crunch is the vital part. You cannot enjoy a soggy plate of bhelpuri that has been sitting around for a while. It has to be mixed together and eaten right away. You have the crunchy papri, sev and chewy puffed rice in contrast with the soft waxy potatoes and then the addition of fresh onion and coriander. The final blend of all the flavours certainly depends on the freshness of ingredients. One stale ingredient like a day-old papri or puffed rice or over-fried sev and the taste will be destroyed.
The next time that you feel like having bhelpuri, go for the real stuff in Saddar. If you don’t find a seat in the tiny little shop, you can take it home in the half-kg or one-kg packs available, just mix it all up and enjoy a wonderful treat.
Karachi: Iranian food
Feasting on chillou
By Qasim A. Moini
Iran’s food, much like its arts, language and culture, is quite subtle. No exploding flavours here. Just a sublime hint of what lies beneath and the rest is left to the gastronome to savour. Matter of fact, many Pakistanis tend to describe it as pheeka (too plain). Perhaps this is a grave injustice, for if the chillou kebab served up at one of Karachi’s famed Iranian cafes is anything to go by, Iranian cuisine is anything but bland.
Located near Saddar’s Lucky Star Chowk, off Daud Pota Road, New Café Subhani is surrounded by traffic, smog and mostly bolted up, ramshackle structures, while the parking situation is, frankly, abysmal. But just as a book must not be judged by its cover, a restaurant should not be judged by its surrounding environment, however uninviting.
For the most part, the café serves up the regular fare – varieties of daal, meat and vegetable curries, biryani, etc – that other mid-range establishments offer. But what sets it apart is the fact that in a small, secluded corner of the menu, under the heading ‘dishes for foreigners,’ lie a small range of chillou dishes.
Chillou, according to Abass Subhani, the chap behind the counter this writer talked to, is a Farsi term for a method of cooking rice, similar to the Urdu word pulao. Hence just as in the cuisine of the subcontinent where we have variations such as mutter pulao, murgh pulao, chana pulao, our Iranian friends have come up with such dishes as chillou kebab, chillou murgh, chillou mahi, etc.
According to good old Wikipedia, chillou is “rice that is carefully prepared through soaking and parboiling, at which point the water is drained and the rice is steamed.”
But what good are definitions if one doesn’t try the real deal? So off we went.
It was well past lunchtime and it was quite difficult to find seats for our small band of gastronomic adventurers. The place was abuzz with the chatter of numerous diners from all walks of life, wolfing down piping hot fare with great relish. The alluring scent of chicken tikka being barbequed outside wafted into the premises, whetting our appetites. A colleague opted for chillou mahi (fish), while I opted for chillou makhsoos (a combination of chillou kebab and chillou murgh, or chicken … why not have the best of both worlds?), while a third friend went for anda ghotala (a heavenly dish of curried fried eggs).
This was the moment of truth, for even though I have been a dedicated votary of chillou kebabs since time immemorial, my colleagues weren’t convinced. However, when the waiter brought out our orders, I stood vindicated. In the middle of the platter was a mound of fragrant, fluffy rice – the notorious chillou – crowned with a cube of butter, surrounded on one side by a long, barbequed seekh kebab and boneless barbequed chicken pieces on the other. On the side was a steamed tomato, along with three or four sickly looking French fried potatoes.
The meal was delightful. The fragrant kebab had a lovely flavour, the type which only comes from being barbequed on charcoal, while the chicken pieces were lightly marinated, unlike in some other establishments, where the chicken tikka is so spicy one needs the fire brigade to keep things under control.
The only letdown was the fries, as they were a bit slimy and quite yellowish-orange. As a friend commented, they seemed to be dipped in haldi (turmeric). And the rice? It was simply in a league of its own. A colleague protested about the amount of calories the cube of butter would add. Bah! Humbug! I feel something would be lacking in the totality of chillou kebab without the butter. Excess calories are a small price to pay for good food!
The chillou mahi was quite a treat as well, with fresh fried pomfret sitting comfortably on a bed of rice. This writer also tried the Afghani pulao, thinking it might be a version of the famed Kabuli pulao. Alas, there was not a raisin or silvered carrot in sight, as what I got instead was beef biryani (delicious, though with beef spelt as ‘beaf’). A small oversight perhaps, but the meat was remarkably well-cooked and the biryani was better than most of the over-spiced chicken concoctions available in the market.
Mr Subhani, himself an Iranian, told me that his uncle bought the place in 1961 from a Sindhi gent. It was earlier known as Bismillah Hotel and it wasn’t until his father took charge in the late seventies that Iranian cuisine was introduced. He said the chillou dishes served up at the café aren’t 100 per cent authentic and have been adjusted to please the Pakistani palate.
One only wished there was an Iranian chai khana nearby where one could wash down the meal with strong tea and preferably lie down for a bit to help digest the feast.
The kebab connection
By Qasim A. Moini
WHEN discussing kebabs, especially in the context of international cuisine and its local manifestations, one feels it is a bit of an omnibus term. So many dishes come under the rather large umbrella of the word that one finds it quite difficult to pick a focus.
For instance kebabs in all their varied forms are enjoyed with great relish here in the subcontinent, in Central Asia, across the Arab lands, in Iran, in Turkey as well as other nations that fall within or have once been under the sphere of influence of these countries or where large immigrant populations are settled. For example, who would have thought kebabs would be wolfed down with such delight in places such as far away New Zealand, Australia or the United Kingdom? Strange are the effects of globalization.
Here in Karachi, perhaps one can associate kebabs in the cultural context with mehndi functions and the ensuing trend of serving kebab paratha to guests at such functions. But if you’re a bit of a killjoy (as is this writer) and are not too fond of loud functions, kebab paratha can be had elsewhere in the metropolis without the song and dance.
This writer and a few trusted culinary companions visited a couple of the city’s celebrated kebab haunts to get a better idea about this meaty, guilty pleasure.
Though the North Indian city of Meerut may historically be better known as the place where the clarion call rallying native troops against the British colonizers in 1857 was first sounded, a local eatery in the Gurumandir area named after the city proves that revolution is not Meerut’s only claim to fame.
As a colleague and I made the cardinal sin of visiting New Meerut Kebab on a Saturday night, finding space was a bit of a quest as the place was packed with diners gulping down barbequed delights. Perhaps this was a good omen, as if a place enjoys such an influx of customers, the food can’t be half bad.
We dispensed with formalities and immediately got down to business, ordering seekh kebabs, Bihari kebabs, chicken tikka and chicken boti. Of course to help us scoop up this considerable spread, piping hot greasy parathas were also ordered. Now being a bit of a paratha purist, I tend to consider most parathas sold at such establishments as glorified puris, as a paratha should be – in my mind – light on the grease, crisp yet fluffy. The stuff one usually gets at commercial eateries is anything but.
The seekh kebabs, though a little small in size, were absolutely delightful. The plateful of Bihari kebabs was also marvellous, garnished with ginger, with a velvety texture. The chicken tikka was, surprisingly, above average, as a lot of barbeque joints in the city bungle this dish with reckless abandon. However, the chicken boti, though almost as velvety in texture as the Bihari kebabs, was way too spicy for this writer’s taste. The grease-fest was rounded off with salad and power-packed tangy tamarind and mint chutney. Though my friend did not partake of the latter for reasons of hygiene – perhaps rightfully so – I threw caution to the wind and heartily dipped my kebabs and parathas into the condiment, as one feels this is an essential part of the experience. As I have lived to tell the tale, perhaps it is not so bad.
On another occasion, a friend and I visited Waheed restaurant, located in one of the side-lanes off the famed Burnes Road, what some would consider the hub of Karachi’s gastronomic culture. Now I have been to this place before and perhaps it was nostalgia that brought me back, but suffice to say as far as kebab paratha and other barbequed fare is concerned, I was a tad disappointed.
It seems the place’s speciality is nihari, and not being too fond of the stuff, I have never tried it. There are no parathas here: just regular naans and sheermal.
The chicken tikka was way too dry and the marinade was flaking off. I actually felt sorry for consuming that particular bird. The chicken boti, along with being equally dry as the tikka, was way too spicy.
The only saving grace of this place was the kebab fry which, admittedly, is heavenly. It seems to be a liquefied version of Bihari kebab, as it has a similar taste. The stuff, scooped up with hot naans, simply melts in your mouth and has a wonderful texture, not too different from a semi-solid shorba.
A plateful of salad, garnished with lemon and chaat masala, was delivered by a vendor from a push-cart outside the eatery, while the tamarind-mint chutney here needed loads of work, along with the other dishes. Alas, my gastronomic radar seemed to be failing me.
This is just the tip of the kebab paratha/barbeque iceberg. The Bundoo Khan network – one I have not visited in quite some time – merits mention. But as was hopefully made clear above, it takes a little extra oomph to serve up these meaty delights to perfection.
Karachi: Kabuli pulao
From Kabul with love
By Qasim A. Moini
THOUGH the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the subsequent flood of refugees created a number of problems here in Pakistan, most notably an influx of narcotics, arms and the proliferation of an extremist ideology, perhaps the one positive aspect that came out of the whole sordid affair was the availability of Kabuli pulao in Pakistan.
This is not to say the dish was unavailable in Pakistan prior to the invasion; it probably was. But as the refugees fanned out across this nation, they brought their cuisine with them to more and more people and resultantly, one of the spots that has become famous for Kabuli pulao in Karachi is the dusty Al-Asif Square, located off the Super Highway in Sohrab Goth on the city’s outer rim.
The troubled land of Afghanistan is at the confluence of Central Asia, the Middle East and the great Indian subcontinent. Hence, its culture and its cuisine reflect the influences of all the civilizations of these mighty land-masses. And Kabuli pulao, named after the devastated Afghan capital, is perhaps the best representative of this ancient land’s cuisine. It bears close resemblance to the Arabian ruz laham or ruz Bukhari and the Central Asian plov.
This writer is not aware of the availability of Kabuli pulao in Karachi other than at Al-Asif Square. Friends tell me it is available at a high-end restaurant popular with barbeque buffs near the Bilawal House Chowrangi, but I have yet to taste their version of the pulao. I have tried the dish at an Iranian hotel in Karachi famous for its delicious chillou kebabs. Now considering the close cultural and linguistic ties between the Afghans and the Iranians, I thought the pulao might be a knockout. Sadly, I was quite disappointed when I was served beef biryani dressed up as the exotic pulao.
Hence, the quest for Kabuli pulao saw a friend and I head for the outskirts of Karachi to savour the delightful dish on a recent weeknight. Suffice to say, Al-Asif Square has a bit of a dodgy reputation and doesn’t exactly feature on the list of fine dining establishments. It’s a bit of a schlep, but if the pulao chef’s stars are in alignment, you’re in for a treat.
The last time I had real Kabuli pulao was about four years ago and it was at a place nestled deep within the apartments that form the heart of Al-Asif Square. However, considering it was late, we settled for a place facing the roadside past the upcountry bus stands and fruit vendors. After all, neither of us wanted to get mugged, at least on that particular night.
Parking our bikes by the roadside, we alighted and asked a Pakhtun kid hovering around the place if the joint served pulao. He replied in the affirmative and we took our chances. Interestingly, both clocks in the eatery were firmly set to pre-daylight savings time and we had to do a double take by checking our own wristwatches.
We ordered the pulao along with a few skewers of kebabs. In a few minutes, starters in the shape of a plate of salad and green raita with small spoons arrived, followed shortly by a piping hot naan accompanied by two small portions of aloo keema (on the house, perhaps).
Finally, the moment of truth arrived as we greeted the plates of pulao piled high with fragrant rice with our mouths a-watering. We were told that we had just made it in time for the last helping of pulao as the place was all out of the stuff for the night. Indeed, it would have been a drag to come all the way to Sohrab Goth and not find our Holy Grail.
The stuff was incredibly oily. It seemed that Saudi Arabia’s entire crude oil reserves had been used to flavour our pulao and this writer had to make use of an ice-cold fizzy drink to wash the stuff down. However, it was a definite guilty pleasure, as we dispensed with the forks and dug in with our bare hands.
Buried under the rice was a small chunk of lamb, which was quite tender. Aside from the rice and meat, raisins and sliced carrots made the experience even more delightful, while the raita also helped matters.
Along with the pulao, the kebabs served up by the place were quite different from the stuff regularly available. Brought over with the seekhs still hot, the pieces of meat had bits of animal fat sandwiched in between, while the seekh kebab made from lamb’s meat had an overpowering smell and taste which was a bit testing for those not used to it.
I have had better Kabuli pulao in Karachi, inside the Al-Asif complex as previously stated. Still, it beats the beef biryani served elsewhere. On a visit abroad once, an Afghan friend cooked up a delightful version of the pulao complete with fresh baked salmon. The flavour has still not left my taste-buds.
However, perhaps this is as close as it gets in Karachi. With that thought in mind, we mounted our steel horses, revved up the engines and rode into the night.
Karachi: Karahi gosht
The quest for karahi
By Qasim A. Moini
WHEN it comes to hunting for good quality karahi gosht, there are a few hotspots scattered across Karachi foodies will swear by. The numerous eateries on the Super Highway, the place located at the end of the Lasbella bridge, along with the restaurants facing the Arabian Sea near Bilawal House immediately spring to mind.
But though these places might earn glowing mentions on any karahi honour roll (I personally think some are quite overrated), there is a place hidden away from the maddening rigmarole of city life that has earned cult status in the eyes of karahi connoisseurs.
To be quite honest, the Gul Malik Hasan Zai restaurant isn’t what it used to be. Or perhaps one was just hungrier and not quite as discerning during one’s younger days. And of course, things always seem better and indeed tastier in the past.But I digress. Nestled on a slight slope in a section of what are commonly known as the North Nazimabad-Manghopir Hills in the katchi abadi of Pahar Gunj, with Hussain D’Silva Town and North Nazimabad’s Block A lying below, perhaps the atmosphere of this joint sets it apart from the karahi competition. The hills – alive with the sounds of hungry karahi lovers – are a natural barrier between the middle class enclave of North Nazimabad and the sprawling working class shanty-towns of Orangi Town, Baldia, Qasba and others that lie beyond.
Here, a motley mixture of men gather for steaming karahis full of spiced meat, plates of daal or even a cuppa filled with saccharine-sweet doodh patti. They include working class Pakthun men, office workers on a men’s night out, quiet madressah students as well as the neighbourhood toughs.
A large high-tension electricity pylon stands smack in the middle of the restaurant’s entrance. It’s hard to decide which came first, considering the unplanned urban sprawl that constitutes the neighbourhood of Pahar Gunj. As your bike pulls up (the recommended mode of transport, as the spot’s a little tight for cars), you’re guided by adolescent valets directing traffic, armed with bamboo sticks, with whistles strung around their necks. A small band of well-fed puppies also greets you, scurrying about, waiting for half-chewed morsels of meat.
The restaurant is abuzz with activity at all hours of the day, but to truly soak in the atmosphere while digging into bowl-fulls of karahi gosht, one is advised to go at night, preferably on an empty stomach.
A friend told me he remembered visiting the joint as far back as 1988, when he and his hungry comrades would dig into karahi after a game of cricket at the nearby Bakhthiary Youth Centre. Perhaps it is older. Some of the fans from the North Nazimabad area swear that karahi aficionados come from as far afield as Defence to savour the fare.
This writer – along with an assorted band of culinary companions – decided to order half kilos each of chicken and mutton karahi (that’s right … that’s the way it goes in the Gunj: karahi by the kilo). The waiter yelled out our order to the maitre d’hotel in Pashto. I personally had reservations about ordering mutton, as the chicken version of karahi is the actual piece de resistance, but the overpowering majority of dining companions insisted on it.
The food takes a fair bit of time to arrive, and in the meantime we munch on a plateful of salad, albeit not part of the house menu. Like at certain other establishments, a freelance salad salesman carries around plastic bagfuls of salad at Rs10 (pay in advance) a pop. With a wedge of lemon and tangy masala attached, the cucumbers, carrots and radishes offer sustenance till the main course arrives, and even during the meal. For those big on salads this is a must, as the only accompaniment one gets with the karahi is sliced raw onions. And plenty of them.
At long last the karahi gosht arrives, steaming in large, deep steel pans, along with nans hot off the tandoor and bowls of yoghurt flavoured with black pepper and cumin. Considering the heavy duty meal, the yoghurt is ideal as it has a cooling as well as digestive effect.
The karahi gosht is awash in a sea of cooking oil, with pieces of meat glistening in gooey glory and bits of green pepper and tomato floating in the concoction. Mind you, this meal is not for the faint of heart or those watching their calorie intake. Though the mutton karahi is rubbery and undercooked (I stood vindicated), the chicken version is delicious, with just the right amount of spices. The green pepper is an ideal supplement for those with a spicier palate, and if the excess oil is drained away, one actually gets to taste a bit of the curry.
But be forewarned: order fizzy soft drinks (you don’t have much choice here … black or white) to make sure the meal goes down easy and don’t eat too late at night, unless you’re looking forward to a nasty bout of indigestion
Karachi: Street food
Food for thought: Street smart in Karachi
By Shagufta Naaz
Done with spending big bucks at glitzy restaurants? Bored with pizzas, burgers and fried chicken? Or just looking for something different, delicious and desi?
While almost every one can name the top restaurants, real food lovers know that Karachi’s most appetising cuisine can be found at some of the most unpretentious places. From downtown dhaabas to thelas, roadside cafes and humble eateries, here’s a taste of the best from the real streets of the city.
Malai Tikka at Ghaffar’s: Barbeque Tonite may have its following, but when it comes to the perfectly marinated, truly melt-in-the-mouth malai tikka, no one does it like Ghaffar’s. Tucked away in the heart of Mohd Ali Society, this humble restaurant is low on ambience but high on taste, and has made a name for itself among the connoisseurs of desi cuisine; their behari chicken, fry kebabs and behari fish are also high on the list.
Al Kebab: Think kebab paratha and you will automatically think of Bundoo Khan; but Al Kebab at Bahadurabad is seen by some as the new contender to the throne. While the types of kebabs on offer are mainly the same as the competition, it’s the light, crispy, positively scrumptious paratha that has made this place the talk of the town. As expected, the behari kebabs are also a must-try here.
Nursery Bun Kebab: Long before the rise of the burger crowd, there was the humble bun kebab. And while true aficionados insist on trekking all the way to Pakistan Chowk for ‘the real thing,’ the Nursery Bun Kebab has its own loyal fan base. From its roots as a strategically-positioned thela right across from Khayyam Cinema, these bun kebabs have fared far better than the film industry (the thela is now a full-fledged shop; the cinema, unfortunately has dwindled into a mediocre shopping centre). Choose from the classic shammi or the mega chappli kebab and insist on extra chutney.
Nagori Lassi: While you’re in the vicinity, don’t miss the lassi from near what used to be the Nursery intersection. A tall glass of rich, sweet lassi with thick chunks of malai floating in it, this drink is a complete meal in its own right.
Pani Puri: Rain or shine, nothing tickles the taste buds quite like a plate of chaat. While Gazebo is undoubtedly the place for sev puri and mixed chaat, and Bohri Bazaar the hotspot for bhel puri; true fans of pani puri (fondly known as gol gapay) should head straight to Tariq Road and seek out the lady who sells the worlds lightest, crispiest puris from home. A little over a hundred rupees will buy you fifty puris, a generous amount of chickpeas, sweet chutney and the hot, tangy tamarind water guaranteed to make your senses reel.
Gajjak and Chikkee: Thanks to its strong Gujarati heritage, old Karachi boasts a number of unique specialities, from malpuras at Kharadar to the qeema paratha at Soldier Bazaar. But if you’re looking for something to munch on while watching TV on cold winter evenings, stock up on a pile of gajjak, revrees and chickee. While these little titbits are readily available all over the city, it’s only at a few shops near Purani Numaish that you will find the delectable gur (molasses) gajjak and chickee. Distinguished by their rich colour, flavour and texture, these crunchy treats are a far healthier option than packaged snacks.
Espresso at Khaled’s: If you want to go for coffee the old fashioned way, head out to Khaled at Bahdurabad. Their deliciously sweetened, milky beverage may not be a European’s idea of Espresso; but this is Karachi and we make our own rules. Served with an insulating layer of foam on top, the coffee is scalding hot so sip with caution and enjoy.
Tea at Café Pyala: If, like most Karachiites, tea is your beverage of choice, a trip to Café Pyala in Gulberg is a must. Tea leaves are boiled in milk for as long as it takes to achieve the rich, karak doodh patti that jolts your senses and wakes you up. A cup (or preferably bowl, in keeping with the name) of this tea along with a heavy duty paratha is the perfect breakfast for a chilly winter morning.
Dhoraji Gola Ganda: But if it happens to be a sweltering summer day instead, keep going till you hit Dhoraji and spot the famous gola ganda vendors all lined up at the edge of the road. Crushed ice laced with a rainbow of syrups, topped with condensed milk and tinned fruit as an optional extra make this is a feast for the eyes as well as the palate. Visitors beware - this treat should be approached with caution by anyone lacking the rock hard Karachi constitution.
Agha’s Mango Milkshake: Summer is also the time to make the most of the mangos, and one of the best ways to enjoy this heavenly fruit is with a glass of Agha’s lip smacking mango milkshake. Thick enough to hold a spoon upright, the shake is a blend of milk, cream and lots and lots of mangos. If you’ve missed the season, never mind, the strawberry shake, falsa and pomegranate juice are as good an option.Have we missed anything that should have been on the menu? Kaiser’s leg of lamb, kulfi at Saeed Manzil, Khairabad’s channa daal, gajjar ka halwa from Burns road, the list can go on and on. So until the next top ten, Bon Appetit.