Food Stories: Mutton karahi

October 06, 2014

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The traditional lamb karahi originates from the rustic and traditionally Pukhtun town of Landi Kotal. —Photo by Fawad Ahmed
The traditional lamb karahi originates from the rustic and traditionally Pukhtun town of Landi Kotal. —Photo by Fawad Ahmed

Let the meat eating begin!

My first recollection of Bakr Eid celebrations (Eid-ul-Azha) is from an October of the 70s; I was five or six and sat fascinated as my father relayed the glorious religious history that marks the blessed event we celebrate today.

I vividly remember going with my father and buying a goat for Rs. 700, a beautiful tall muscular animal that was to be pampered until the morning of the Qurbani (sacrifice), and then enjoyed as a delicious family lunch.

Karahi gosht is said to be a dish of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly known as NWFP). In the city of Peshawar, and its surrounding areas, meat rules supreme.

Historically speaking, lamb and goat meat (mutton) has always been favoured in South Asia, Middle East, Central Asia, and the Mediterranean. Perhaps it was it’s availability or size that made it the animal of choice to be hunted as a quick and easy dinner, or the fact that goat and lamb meat is deliciously tender and juicy.

Curry, A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors is a fabulous narrative of South Asian cuisine and the charming tales associated with its evolution:


At a garden party at Khyber in the 1920’s, a British civil servant sampled the sort of [goat] kebabs Babar would have eaten in the early 16th century. The local Afridis, a warlike nomadic mountain people, had invited the British to watch a display of guns, fireworks, and an exhibition of how they attack in enemy’s position. An old Afridi came up and offered a lump of sheep’s flesh freshly roasted in [tomatoes]. These had to be pulled off and eaten with the fingers.

It is believed that the ruling Mughul’s hearty appetite for beef, lamb and goat clashed with the dietary habits of many of their subjects in the subcontinent. But the mountain people of Afghanistan and the Khyber were used to the hearty meat-based diet of the nomadic shepherds of the region.

The warrior nature of the Pukhtuns and some of the other Muslims in the mountainous region accentuated the consumption of the undomesticated animal, and vegetarianism was considered the diet of the people of the plains.

Lizzie Collingham, a historian opines;


The consumption of meat was associated with strength and valor. It was considered that environmental essences contained in the soil were transferred from plants and then into herbivores, which in turn were eaten by carnivores. Each transference created a more powerful distillation of essences. Meat was thus the most intense of foods.

How did the traditional lamb karahi come to be? My research pointed me to Landi Kotal, a rustic and traditionally Pukhtun town, sitting close to Afghanistan atop the Khyber Pass.

The Shinwari and Afridi tribes hail from this region and it is also considered to be the historical home of the balti or karahi gosht.

The karahi gosht is named after the utensil it is cooked in. The balti and karahi (the cooking utensil balti is referred to as karahi in southern Pakistan) are a somewhat similar heavy-based, round, wok-like pot.

From Landi Kotal, the delicious balti gosht travelled to Punjab and then the rest of the world.

The mutton karahi essentially consists of small cubes of lamb or goat, which are cooked in tomatoes, green chillie, salt and preferably animal fat. The fresh meat is thought to provide the fat base for the cooking, and it is meant to be savoured directly from the karahi with a side of hot naan.

From the book titled, Street Food of the World

Chicken Karahi/Karahi gosht

A specialty of Lahore’s food street, this dish is made by stir-frying pieces of chicken with tomatoes, green chili, ginger, and garlic in a karahi, the wok-like pan that gives the dish its name. The diner mops up the juice, pieces of naan. A variation of chicken karahi is karahi gosht and is made with mutton. This dish may have been the precursor of the popular British dish, Balti.

Also see: Food Stories: Sheer Khurma

Balti or karahi, this lamb and goat delight is all about the palatability of meat. My two favourites every Eid-ul-Azha were namkeen gosht, for this was made just once a year with the fresh meat of the qurbani ka bakra (sacrificed animal), and the special karahi gosht made by my dearest father Javed Hussain Tirmizi.

My father travelled frequently on his job, and on one of his marketing ventures he travelled to Landi Kotal and got the recipe, right from its city of origin.

Here it is, celebrating Eid-ul-Azha from my kitchen to yours.

Ingredients

4 lbs goat leg, cut in small cubes
2 lbs tomatoes
7 to 10 green chillies, or to taste (chopped)
Salt to taste
Oil ½ cup, but with fresh Qurbani meat the animal fat should suffice

Method

Braise the meat on a high heat, adding green chillies and salt, cook for a few minutes adding tomatoes.

Cook until the meat is tender and the tomato juice has all but evaporated.

The orange-red tender meat is ready to be served with hot delicious naan.

Eid Mubarak!


—Photos by Fawad Ahmed