Lahore, my birthplace, is a city of ornate derelict Mughal buildings and the place where Sikh ruler Maharaja Ranjit Singh lays at rest; a true cultural crossroads. It is also the setting for Kipling’s stories, where you will find Kim’s Gun on the Mall; the main artery where the rickshaws, cars and motorbikes weave in and out of the lanes like tiny insects.
Lahore is also well-known for it’s gastronomic treats, and is considered one of the culinary heavyweights of Pakistan. Drive past the Regal cinema near the Liberty Market and you’ll see round, concave, steel woks, called karahis, filled with pakoras; vegetables dredged in chickpea-flour bobbing up and down in the golden, musky oil. They are eaten hot and steaming, straight out of the newspaper cones they are served in. Others will tell you about the famous fragrant, spice-rubbed river fish sold in Mozang Chungi. Or the legendary chicken broast made on hot coals in Lahore Canttonment. Everyone has some sort of food-related memory associated with Lahore, the chicken karahi from Food Street in the Gawalmandi quarter is mine. I hear that recently, Food Street was shut down by the Government this summer. I so do hope this is temporary.
Upon entering the cacophony of Food Street, you notice the atmosphere becomes thick with steam, oil and smoke from the karahis laden with chicken and lacquered kebabs on a charcoal grill.
In the corner, you see a man preparing taka tak, an onomatopoeic name for the sound of the spatula hitting the griddle. The taka tak-walla’s arms a blur: like scissor blades coming together, beating the spatulas on the griddle to mince a medley of brain, liver, heart, kidneys, sweetbreads and gizzard.
Not a dish for the meek.
Left right, left right, taka tak, taka tak, taka tak. Each hit mincing it further into an amalgamous mass of layered flavours and spice. Lahoris often dispute over whether the dish is rightfully called taka tak or kata kat. We like to argue about our food.
The chicken karahi-walla stands at his kiosk, in a swirl of heat and smoke. You watch him as he adds chopped chunks of green chili to make the dish smolderingly hot. As soon as the karahi is placed in front of you, you ravenously tear off soft, chewy, white pieces of tandoori naan, to mop up that unctuous juice of the karahi-spiced oil running away from the tomatoes. For all the food found on Food Street, the chicken karahi, to me, is Lahore’s Star Culinary Attraction.
To make chicken karahi, I learnt that one must be very quick, it’s an act of rigorous stir-frying. One must take care that the garlic does not ‘over-brown’, and that the ginger is added later, as it burns quickly. When the chicken karahi is almost ready, add the chopped coriander/cilantro stems and julienned ginger and give it a whirl. I don’t add tomato paste to the dish because I feel it works better with just a few natural ingredients.
If you want to add more colour to the dish, add one teaspoon of tomato paste with the tomatoes. You may have to play around a bit with the chili heat- I find 4 chilies do the trick, my mum always adds 6-8. Perhaps one could start with 2 for a taste-test. Years ago, I cut chilies with my bare hands, then touched my ears, burning them. Since then, I have made sure to cut the chilies with kitchen shears straight into the dish, or coat my fingers with oil while slicing. The latter can be a bit tricky though, as there is danger of cutting your fingers. Before serving, garnish with fresh coriander/cilantro leaves and a few slim sticks of ginger. I always add a heaped teaspoon of tart and spicy mango pickle to my plate.
Mausoleum (Samadhi) of Maharajah Ranjit Singh photo credit: Wikipedia
Lahore Food Street photo used with permission from Kamran Ali, from www.nightbirdpro.com
Serves 4 with naan or chapati and a side dish
Prep time: 15 minutes
Active time: 25 minutes
*3-5 tablespoons of sunflower oil
*3 lbs. chicken with bone, cut into 1½-2 in pieces
*4 cloves garlic, minced
*2 + 2 inch knob of ginger root, minced + julienned
*4 vine-ripened tomatoes, finely chopped
*2+2 green thai-bird chilies, chopped into discs
*¼ teaspoon turmeric powder
*1 teaspoon salt
*Handful fresh coriander, stems finely chopped, leaves reserved and set aside
*Karahi or wok (preferably 12-14 in)
*Place karahi on medium heat and add 3-5 tablespoons of oil;
*To the hot oil, add the minced garlic and stir for 1 minute till it turns golden;
*Add ginger and fry for another minute or two;
*Turn the heat to high and add the chopped tomatoes, salt and turmeric powder;
*Stir fry the tomatoes till the water evaporates and the mixture looks jammy. This should take around ten minutes. If the tomatoes start to scorch, turn the heat down a bit;
*When the mixture has thickened and reduced by more than half, add the chicken and chopped chilies and continue to stir fry for another 10 minutes;
*Add the stems of the coriander/cilantro, remaining chopped chilies, and julienned ginger (reserving some for garnish);
*Before serving, add coriander/cilantro leaves, chilies and slim sticks of raw ginger;
*Serve with naan or chapati. Or if you’re a rice nut like me, have it with some Basmati, even if unconventional.