Monday, 11 April 2011

Around The World In 80 Cuisines: Pakistani



(3) Pakistani by Ruth Emery.

Forget about the Brick Lane tourist trap: mediocre curry restaurant after curry restaurant, ‘free poppadoms’ and ‘bring your own wine, madam’ touted by waiters drumming up trade on a half a mile stretch in east London.

Forget about the estimated 9,000 Indian restaurants crammed into our small island. Instead, I want to take you on a journey, a journey that you will take you over the north-west border of India, and, in London terms, just a few minutes walk from Brick Lane across Whitechapel High Street.

We’ve arrived at Tayyabs, a restaurant tucked away behind the East London mosque in a desolate back street, showcasing the finest Pakistani cuisine.

Juicy and tender lamb chops, exquisite peshwari naans, sweet mango lassis, creamy lentil and spinach curry and fiery samosas await. Waiters weave in and out carrying sizzling trays of barbecued meat, silver bowls full of colourful curries, and stacks of rotis and naans.

Prices are cheap and the wait is long: the queue often starts at the dessert counter and you may not get your bum on a seat until an hour or so later.

So what is it about Pakistani food that has restaurants like Tayyabs pulling in the punters? True, Pakistani food is similar to Indian food. It would be hard not to share some common traits given the close geographic proximity. So curries, samosas and onion bhajis are all on the menu. But there are some key differences.

Firstly: the meat. Barbecued meat and kebabs are an important part of Pakistani cuisine. Chicken tikka, seekh kebab (beef kebab mixed with seasoning and spice), karahi chicken (cooked in ginger, garlic and tomatoes) and bhindi meat (with okra) are some of the specialities. Obviously, seeing as Pakistan is a Muslim country, pork is off the menu; as is alcohol. Go to a restaurant like Tayyabs, and you’ll be treated to succulent, medium-rare meat that has such a depth of flavour from the spices (think brown cardamom, green cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, mace and black pepper) that you’ll be happy to just eat meat for your entire meal and forget about breads or curries.

But that would be a shame, as there are plenty more treats to come.

Pakistanis are primarily wheat eaters, not rice eaters, and there are lots of different breads to mop up curries or wrap round a piece of meat. Naans (the peshwari naan at Tayyabs – a shiny sweet masterpiece covered with sesame seeds - is easily worth the long queue), pratha (a chapatti with many layers separated by ghee), and rotis (typically baked in a clay oven) are all much more interesting than the pilau rice dished up at your average Indian restaurant.

The country also boasts some tasty veggie dishes. Alu (potatoes), gobhi (cabbage), bhindi (okra), channa (chickpeas) and matar (peas) are used in many dishes, while various dhals (lentil stews) are often served alongside the meat and bread.

Ooh, a sizzling plate of spicy lamb chops has been plonked down on the table in front of us. Time to stop telling you about the food and let you try it for yourself.

Forget your manners, forget conversation for the next 10 minutes, and grab a chop and tuck in.

My Top 3 Favourite Pakistani Restaurants in London
Tayyabs - The queue that snakes round this East London restaurant proves just how popular it is. Juicy and tender lamb chops, exquisite peshwari naans, sweet mango lassis, creamy lentil and spinach curry and fiery samosas pull the crowds in night after night. Prices are low and it’s bring your own booze, making it a fun and cheap night out.

Lahore Kebab House - If the queue for Tayyabs is too much to bear, head over to canteen-style restaurant Lahore round the corner. It’s a similar set up: fantastic meat dishes, bargain prices and bring your own alcohol. It’s a vast place, I lost count of how many floors, wings and rooms there are here. If you’re lucky enough to be seated near the open kitchen then you can watch the chefs at work. If you’re not near the kitchen, then you’ll likely get a waiter with a walkie-talkie. Waiters bark orders into them – ‘2 lamb ribs, 2 chicken biryanis, 1 karahi chicken, 2 keema nans’ – and diners shout at each other to be heard in this busy, noisy restaurant. The chicken tikka and chilli paneer are real highlights on the extensive menu. There’s also a branch in Streatham.

Zayna - If E1 is too far to venture for Tayyabs or Lahore, or you’re after a more refined experience, consider Zayna in Marble Arch. This elegant restaurant serves up North Indian and Pakistani food, overseen by owner Riz Dar, whose first job was in his father’s restaurant in Pakistan. There’s also an extensive wine list of old and new world wines (this isn’t the kind of place that indulges a BYO policy). It’s ideal for veggies, with nine tasty vegetarian dishes on the menu, priced around the £10 mark. Veggies can also mix it up by ordering two half portions of any dish for £12. After dining on lentils, chickpeas, okra and maybe a kebab or two for the carnivores among you, there’s a nod to the west with the desserts. If you’ve still got room then you can tuck into a chocolate fondant or bread and butter pudding with caramel sauce. Or if you want to stay true to Zayna’s routes, you can satisfy your sweet tooth with sticky gulab jamon or some fragrant kulfi.

Looking for further inspiration? Check out the Best Pakistani & Indian Restaurants in London.

Flag image courtesy of Flickr user www.steveconover.info.

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