Pakistanis take immense pride in welcoming guests. And welcome I felt during my visit, which was my first and hopefully not my last. I’d like to go back for the people and the food. In fact, these two are closely entwined. Hospitality is so engrained in the culture that people would rather go hungry than not offer something to a guest.

The reason for our visit was sad. We, a team of volunteers of Children of Tomorrow, went for a disaster relief effort, distributing water filters to the flood-affected areas. But even there, in a small tent village where we paused during our trip from Karachi to Thatta, we were greeted with karak chai, the omnipresent strong and sweet milk tea. The villagers insisted we have some food, and we had a hard time explaining lunch was waiting for us elsewhere.

Pakistani food wasn’t new to me, I had lots of it in New York, but the experience is always so different in its original setting. At any restaurant you’ll find barbecue chefs, true masters, sweating at charcoal grills tending huge kebab skewers, ribs and other chunks of juicy meat. Other chefs operate the tandoor, a cylindrical clay oven, from which soft naans and succulent chicken tikka emerge. As a rule there is more food on the table than everyone can possibly consume. Just when you’re priding yourself on the quantities you’ve managed to put away, new dishes arrive at the table. They’re always just too good to turn down (not to mention it’d be impolite), so you just stretch yourself.

I’ve tried amazing fish curry, neehari (a beef stew), brain curry (that was a first!), liver curry and naan bread with minced meat. They tasted best when washed down with a refreshing, fresh pomegranate juice with a pinch of Himalayan salt. Finally, sweet desserts like kulfi made me forget how full I actually was.

In my experience, Pakistan is a kind of ‘Italy plus’, in the way the concept of time is a bit more elastic, traffic is a bit more chaotic, family ties are a bit tighter and food and hospitality are a bit more important. And trust me, family and food are steady pillars of Italian culture, so go figure the preeminence of both in Pakistan.

Not only am I addicted to the strong milk tea now, I also got fanatical about recreating dishes I tasted in my Rome kitchen. The best dish I had was at Gymkhana Club in Karachi, a refreshing minced chicken curry with cilantro and spring onions. My version turned out nice, but it didn’t come close to the version I had in Pakistan.

I guess I have to back and try it again. I’m already looking forward to seconds.

Chicken Keema (ground chicken curry)

For the garlic-ginger paste: ½ cup cilantro, 4 garlic cloves, 2 cm fresh ginger, 2 tablespoons vegetable oil. Finely chop the ingredients and blend them to a fine paste.

  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1-2 cardamom pods
  • 2 cloves
  • 2 teaspoons garlic-ginger paste
  • 1 yellow onion, chopped
  • 3 spring onions, sliced (including the green part, but put this aside)
  • 3 roma tomatoes, peeled, chopped into tiny cubes
  • 1 large carrot, chopped into tiny cubes
  • 1 cup green peas
  • 1 teaspoon red chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
  • 1 teaspoon garam masala powder
  • 1 pound finely ground chicken
  • salt to taste

To garnish:
Chopped cilantro
Lemon wedge

Heat the oil and add the cumin seeds, bay leaf, cardamom pods and cloves and sauté for one minute. Add the ginger-garlic paste and sauté for another minute. Add the onions and sauté for 3 minutes or until golden. Add tomatoes, carrots and green peas and fry until oil separates. Add chili, turmeric and garam masala powder and cook for a few minutes until you add the ground chicken. Mix thoroughly, so chicken pieces don’t stick. Add salt to taste and simmer for another 10 minutes or until meat is done. Add the green parts of the spring onion during the last 3 minutes and take out the bay leaf, cardamom pods and cloves. Garnish with cilantro and a lemon wedge.


Author Irene

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