December 01, 2019


Barbeque is fun with friends
Barbeque is fun with friends

Usually, away from the watchful eyes of the lady wife, I tend to gorge on meat on my visits to Pakistan. I don’t feel too guilty as my longer stays in Sri Lanka are largely meat-free, and replete with fish. So when

I was briefly in Islamabad, I was delighted to be invited by my old friend, Qaim Shah, to a barbeque.

Knowing how seriously Qaim takes his food — and meat in particular — I was sure I was in for a treat. And so it proved to be — the mutton skewers were juicy and succulent. An innovation for me was the presence of a couple of skewers of sheep fat on the side of the barbecue. As the fat melted, it was rubbed over the meat to keep it moist.

Expecting to focus entirely on the grilled meat, I must confess I was diverted by the karrhai gosht, which was some of the best I have ever tasted. This is probably the simplest way to cook meat. Qaim explained that all the dish contained was meat, tomatoes, green chillies, ginger and salt. I made chicken karrhai the other day as there’s very little good quality meat available in Sri Lanka. It was fine, but not a patch on Qaim’s. Basically, it’s the quality of the meat that makes all the difference, and Qaim had procured his meat from a local butcher who sold top cuts.

The best way to cook karrhai gosht is to use only the best quality meat or chicken with mild spices to enhance its flavour

Driving to Lahore to attend the wedding festivities of the daughter of dear friends, I was delighted to meet pals I hadn’t seen in years. And the food was of a very high standard, not always the case at such events. But the culinary highlight of my short Lahore trip was the food I ordered from Khan Baba in Chauburji. For my money, this is the best desi restaurant in Lahore, and possibly Pakistan.

Staying with TJ, I invited a few foodie friends to sample the brain masala, gosht ka salan, naan with mince-filling and mutton pulao. Almost all desi eateries use so much chilli that it often overpowers the dish. At Khan Baba, they let the ingredients speak for themselves, using only the very best quality meat and chicken, cooked with desi ghee. The flavour is subtle, without the sweat-inducing chilli heat you can encounter in most places. I wish Khan Baba would publish a cookbook of their recipes as it is a Lahore institution that not enough people know about or appreciate.

There are certain dishes that are best cooked by specialists rather than the home cook. I would place nihari and payas in this category. Both need long, slow cooking and the right combination of spices. I have never tried to make them, but don’t want to risk an upset stomach from the large vats produced by Karachi’s Nihari Inn or Zahid’s Nihari. Both have great flavour, but to tuck into their offerings just before a flight? I don’t think so.

Lahori Karrhai
Lahori Karrhai

Oh yes, here’s an easy way to make a karrhai: Heat a wok with a couple of tablespoons of ghee; sautee a half kilo of meat (or chicken), throw in a similar quantity of quartered tomatoes; add five or six sliced green chillies, salt and some julienned ginger. Peel off the skin of the tomatoes as they soften, and stir the contents of the wok vigorously. Lower the heat once things are cooking nicely until the meat is done, and the sauce is reduced to barely a coating. It can’t get much simpler than this.

Surmai or seer is the most popular (and most expensive) fish available in Sri Lanka. Also known as King Fish, it can grow up to 45 kg. I have bought 15-kg seer often as the local fishing villagers bring their catch to us for inspection. Nandi, our star housekeeper and chef, has a wonderful way with fish and I look forward to a change from all the meat I have eaten recently.

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 1st, 2019