The kebab run

Feature Rehan Ansari visits Karachi and finds that the city's dark image belies a delicious local cuisine, culled from the entire subcontinent.

A cook preparing katta kat - a mix of liver, brain, heart and spices - on Karachi's Burns Road.
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Rehan Ansari visits Karachi and finds that the city's dark image belies a delicious local cuisine, culled from the entire subcontinent. Don't allow news about Pakistan to leave a bad taste in your mouth. That would be a shame since the food is so good. Do not read newspapers when here, nor watch television news, even with the dozens of lively local channels. The news doesn't bear any relation to the great time that is to be had here.

Karachi: a city of 15 million residents on the Arabian Sea, a city of Punjabis, Pathans, Afghans, Sindhis, Goans, Parsis and all of India. There is not a single part of India or its cuisine that is not represented here. I live in Mumbai and before the November terrorist attacks, I was in Pakistan "crabbing" in Karachi Harbour. I know it sounds vaguely dirty, but it's not, and it's not related to terrorism either. A group of us drove to Keamari and hired a sailing boat. The crew took us out into the water, and then they fried crabs and fish while our party of four talked until the breeze and the stars prompted the men to start singing Bollywood songs and the girls to start dancing, holding on to the rigging. Dinner was served lit by moonlight and lanterns. In a boat next to us corporate types were doing the same, minus the dancing women.

Two weeks later back in Mumbai, my recollection of the floating dinner under the stars did not sit well with the lurid accounts in the local press of terrorists having boarded a ship in Karachi Harbour. Eating the tremendous food I have eaten this gorgeous winter, in unambiguously interesting surroundings, the news about Karachi seems to be about a place at an angle from here - to borrow Salman Rushdie's famous line about his fictional Pakistan in the novel Shame.

I have to stress that this is in no way a comprehensive survey, more an idiosyncratic personal journey through Karachi's food locales - and heavily biased towards kebabs. Karachi has great kebabs because the Punjabis who moved here from the north of the country at Partition, and the Afghans who have been coming here in great numbers since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, all have kebabs at the heart of their cuisine. Having moved here, the kebab makers naturally set up shop in Karachi, and their customers keep them on their toes - over the quality of the meat, over how finely ground it is and over the myriad combinations of spices.

Karachi also has great food because since the 1970s, the political environment has ensured that food has become a prime source of entertainment. With the banning of gambling (goodbye casinos and horse-racing) and alcohol (goodbye bars and clubs) under the prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and then the severe curtailment of theatre and music under the next man to rule Pakistan, General Zia, eating out became the only thing to do. And Karachi, being the great business city that it is, can really deliver when it sets its mind to something.

Take BBQ Tonite in the district of Clifton, for example, which is where everyone takes visitors from out of town for kebabs. And they should. It is clean and efficient, and has very courteous service. Its size is awe-inspiring - four floors of customers and no complaints. Its management style should be written about for the Harvard Business Review. I was staying in uber-trendy Old Clifton, which has a number of parks nearby. One is near Mohatta Palace, another is the huge Zamzama Park and then there is the gargantuan Jehangir Kothari Park. Each is a 20-minute walk from the other. I made sure I walked in all of them to build up an appetite for my kebab run.

My totally unscientific food run began in Society, a vast residential and commercial area built in the 1950s, which has lovely tree-lined avenues and Art Deco-style houses. The two people leading the kebab run live there. Adil Moosajee, 33, runs a boutique in fashionable Zamzama and the new Forum Mall. He is also a scion of the Moosajee retail outfit that has been around downtown Karachi's Saddar district for 150 years. His friend Tanveer Abdullah, 50, heads an event management company and has recently worked on a photoarchive of Karachi's history for the Dawn newspaper. He also belongs to the Bohri community. I felt sure they would know both the old and the new in trends, including food. I was right: their eyes lit up when I said "kebab run".

The first places they took me - Al Kabab and Ghaffar, which are near each other in Society - are for kebab afficionados. The fare is the finest, though perhaps the mince of Ghaffar's kebab is very slightly finer than Al Kabab's. But this is not the world's most comfortable eating experience. You eat kebabs sitting in the car or on chairs between cars. And there is no point in asking for a doggie bag because kebabs really have to be eaten the minute they are cooked. The kebabs from these eateries are famous simply as kebabs from Ghaffar or Al Kabab. No one, neither the customers nor the proprietors, is interested in their antecedents, as in whether they are Punjabi style, or from Lucknow, Hyderabad or Chennai.

From there we moved on to Old Town, which is a bit of a hike from Society. By the time we arrived there it was after 10pm, when the traffic on Bunder Road trickles to a standstill, and you can take time to look around at the awe-inspiring architecture on the main drag. From Mereweather Tower to the mayor's office (the building with the clock tower), you are surrounded by late Victorian buildings made out of Thatta (Sindhi) limestone.

At a food stall we sampled maalpara, a sweet, thick divinely soft roti, which Bohris eat before dinner, before going to Kaisers in Kharadar, to eat pai, a curry made out of hooves (in our case it was goat, not buffalo), and raan (roasted leg of lamb). It all went down so easily. Then it was off to Burns Road, the financial district close to Old Town. Except that its eateries are cleaner and therefore more tourist-friendly, this warren of streets, brightly lit and hyperactive, hasn't changed since the 1970s when my father would bring us here for dhagay walay kebab. These melt-in-the-mouth kebabs are held together by a thread. Pick at this and the kebab falls off ever so softly on to the plate, to be eaten with hot naan.

The kebab-shop owners say that dhagay walay kebab is from old Delhi (or as they say it "Dilli", which can also convey the expression "close to the heart"). A shop is even named Karachi kay Dilli walay kebab (Delhi Kebabs in Karachi). However, during more than 15 years of visiting Delhi, I have searched high and low and not found them. Every one of Old Delhi's kebab wallahs must have moved to Karachi after Partition in 1947. William Dalrymple, in his book on Delhi, City Of Djinns, talks about entire neighbourhoods in Darya Ganj, Delhi, relocating to Burns Road, Karachi. Still, it is strange that both Darya Ganj in Delhi and Burns Road in Karachi look eerily like one another.

The kebab at Wahid's on Burns Road was so good that we came back again for nihari. This mutton stew, cooked overnight, is the softest of curries, the meat almost collapsing into the sauce. It was so delicious it converted my mostly vegetarian friend from Mumbai, who smiled as he demolished a plate of it. The proprietor of Wahid's told me a story of the origins of nihari. He said the emperor Shah Jehan asked his cooks to invent something for the labourers working on the Taj Mahal, so that they would be satisfied with just one meal a day. Who knows if this is true, but we certainly weren't hungry for almost the whole of the next day, which was just as well.

A news item about Kharadar in the daily newspaper Dawn did not go well with kebabs:189 mobile phones were reported stolen the previous night in Karachi, mostly from Kharadar and probably while we were enjoying our pai. Apparently, the favoured method of muggers is for men on motorbikes to approach cars stuck in traffic jams or about to park, and snatch mobiles by reaching through an open window. I ignored the news, for fear of spoiling my appetite.