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FOOD FOR THOUGHT: The Karhai Chronicles

September 13, 2008

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Keeping the high altitude of the location in mind and the subsequent  lack of oxygen, it took forever for the karhai to be prepared.

When studying psychology, we were taught that people in general unconsciously differentiate between each other by the kind of race, region, language and/or caste they belonged to.

Some take it to a greater extreme and keep it as a primary basis for judging other individuals, most of which may give a completely inaccurate picture of the victim. We`re taught that the reason why mankind unconsciously classifies itself into different subcategories is to simplify the process of giving an identity to a person.

If there is one thing that becomes apparent when traveling through Pakistan, it`s the sheer number of subcultures that exist here. The differences, as you move from Karachi to up north, may change very subtly but they`re definitively there.

Eating is a national past time. Simply speaking, its how us desis `break the ice`, when interacting with other desis. The question is, if that`s how we connect, what is that one food item that is common to all of us? No, it`s not the biryani. It`s not even the tikka.

The one thing that you`ll find readily available on every single menu at every fathomable dhaba (roadside eatery) is the chicken karhai - stir fried chicken curry.

Several years ago, my family decided that we needed to go on a road trip from Karachi to Hunza. Our stopovers included (in order of the round-trip) Dharki, Lahore, Abbotabad, Gilgit, Hunza, Abbotabad, Rawalpindi, Bhawalpur, and Karachi. The one thing that I`ve learnt, via interaction with friends and acquaintances who travel from the Punjab and the NWFP region, is that generally, desi food in Karachi is spicier. So is the karhai.

Laden in rich red gravy, served dry as well (unusually referred to as `white` karhai to signify the relative lack of masala) the karhai in Karachi is literally made, at some places, to deliciously burn your taste buds in the process.

During the trip I mentioned above, we stopped at a dhaba right before Dharki. From where we sat, we could see women from the village drying out dates on large mats. Karhai was promptly ordered followed by the customary doodh patti. The chicken was slightly browner because, as I was explained later, it was `desi` (organic chicken?) and took longer to cook. The karhai itself had minimal gravy but was replete with masala that left us smacking our lips all the way to Dharki. It also served to overpower whatever taste our dinner was supposed to have since it all seemed to be tinged with the karhai we had at the dhaba.

What is a trip to Lahore, for an outsider, without the mandatory trip to its infamous food street? Situated in the midst of restored colonial buildings, there was row upon row of street side food sellers and we were promptly asked to try out the batair (quail). With all due respect to batair lovers, what is that mite of a bird in front of a big broiler chicken? Karhai was promptly ordered.

The chicken karhai in Lahore was dipped in more gravy, almost like thick curry, the masala was light and the chicken literally melted off the bones. From the abuse they`d been suffering from the time they tasted the first karhai in Karachi, our taste buds could finally absorb the flavour of the food without fear of being burnt.

But the karhai we had up north, in Gilgit, was perhaps the most varied. We`d driven up to a roadside café situated at a high altitude with a beautiful view of the valley beneath us. By this time, we were threatening to overdose on karhai but after being handed the menu that was the only thing we could recognize. Hence karhai it was.

Keeping the high altitude of the location in mind and the subsequent lack of oxygen, needless to say, it took forever for the karhai to be prepared. What`s interesting is that since it takes extremely long to cook anything, the residents cook almost everything in a pressure cooker... including the karhai! What came as a result off was a very small chicken in minimal masala and gravy.

The chicken was somewhat plain and was as good as steamed. But the relative blandness suited the weather. For me the karhai chronicles ended there as we sat outside savouring our meal and the evening set in on the misty mountains. Especially when the pathan café owners nudged each other after serving us and audibly whispered, “They`re from Karachi.”