Asghar squats on top of a wooden table and fans the coal embers as the chicken tikka, impaled on steel skewers, turns a carbon-black around the edges as it plumpens and becomes amber-hued in the middle. Asghar has worked at Punjab Tikka House in Main Market, Lahore for as long as I can remember. As I sit watching from the car, he effortlessly slides off the bite-sized pieces of chicken tikka with his bare hands. Onto a newspaper. One fold, two fold, then a third, just like fish & chips in England. Then into the plastic bag they go.
He calls out to his helper in Punjabi, “Chotay, naan leyya,” ordering his “Chota” ; understudy / helper to bring the fresh naan; white and plump. Chota inserts a long steel rod into the clay tandoor, and hooks it into the naan. Out comes one, then another, then another. Into a newspaper they go, too.
Asghar’s chicken tikka; chicken brochette, are as legendary as the inlaid semi-precious stones and as intricate as the precious marble carvings you will find inside the Lahore Fort.
Asghar knows his clients’ preferences. He does not offer me any raita on the side, even though I love the small bits of herbs blended into the cooling yoghurt, giving it a pungency incomparable to the raita served in our home. But it is verboten. I am visiting Lahore for a few weeks and Kaka, (paternal uncle, in Dari), has made it clear I am not to eat or drink anything which is served at room temperature, for fear of food poisoning. Living abroad makes one vulnerable to bacteria and parasites, unfortunately.
Once home, we open the plastic bag, all soft and flaccid from the steam of the chicken tikka and naan. Onto our plates it goes, then we douse it with homemade, creamy yoghurt and mint chutney. Even a few squirts of lemon, fresh from the dwarf Chinese lemon tree, lemon with the thinnest skin, seedless and juicy till the end. Some slender slices of cucumber, for textural contrast against the silk-like pieces of chicken; offering a cooling effect against the fiery spices Asghar uses.
And then a glass of salty, creamy lassi as a chaser.
A perfect summer meal in Lahore.
Living in Toronto, I have used some of the local herbs for the raita, which we don’t find in Lahore- feel free to throw together any of the herbs you find in your farmer’s market. I have used tarragon, chives, mint, coriander and thyme. Chop them fine, mix them in with some greek-style yoghurt or Syrian / Lebanese labneh (or even regular yoghurt, if you can’t find the thick style), and serve the chicken brochette on top with heirloom tomatoes, adding some sweetness against the hot punch of the spices.
You will need 8 short metal skewers. If you do not have these, you can use wooden or bamboo skewers, be sure to soak them in water overnight so they don’t burn when they are under the broiler.
*Corn oil or any other neutral oil
*2 lbs boneless chicken breast or thigh, cut into small cube-like pieces
*3/4 tsp salt
*1/4 to 1/2 tsp red chili pepper
*1/4 tsp haldi (turmeric powder)
*1/2 tsp zeera (cumin) powder
*1/2 tsp dhania (dried coriander) powder
*1 tsp minced garlic (or garlic paste; available in jar)
*1 tsp minced ginger (or ginger paste; available in jar)
*1/4 cup whole natural yoghurt (for marinade)
*1 cup greek-style yoghurt
*a mix of fresh herbs- tarragon, coriander, chives, mint- whatever you find at your farmer’s market or in your grocery store
*2 heirloom tomatoes, sliced thin
*2 fresh limes, quartered
*Cut your chicken into small cubes (approximately 1in)
*Add salt, haldi, chili, zeera powder, dhania powder, garlic, ginger and yoghurt and mix well.
*Allow the chicken to rest in the marinade for at least 1 hour, but preferably overnight. The yoghurt serves to tenderise the chicken.
*Prepare your herbed yoghurt by chopping all the herbs and mixing then in with the yoghurt with a pinch of salt.
*When ready to prepare the chicken brochette, bring the chicken to room temperature and pre-heat your broiler.
*Thread chicken onto 8 skewers (shaking the excess yoghurt off as it will burn in the oven), and place on a tray lined with foil.
*Drizzle some oil on top. Turn the skewers over and repeat; ensure they are coated well with oil.
*Place directly under the broiler in your oven.
*Each side will take approximately 5-7 minutes to cook, depending on the intensity of your broiler.
*Once the first side is done, carefully flip the brochette.
*Allow the other side to broil now.
*Remove from the oven and serve with herbed yoghurt, slices of heirloom tomatoes, lime wedges and naan.