Thursday night after work my friends at the AAWAZ and ILM projects in Islamabad took me out to dinner at Habibi, a traditional Pakistani BBQ restaurant. Habibi is the Arabic word for friend or good friend so this was the appropriate restaurant to visit with a group of friends.
I started the evening with a tour of the open air restaurant and watched the chefs cooking on various grills over open fire as the smells of grilling meet and Pakistani seasonings filled my nose making my mouth water and building up my appetite.
The first grill was a massive cast iron skillet (I guess that is a good word for this) mounted over a wood burning fire. The skillet is set up so that it is on a slant with hot oil at the lower end directly over the fire and a frying surface over indirect heat. This station is used to make a type dish made with ground beef mixed with exotic spices. The meat is fried in the oil and grilled on the pan surface. We did not get this particular dish in our mountain of meat but it really did look and smell good.
Next station was the Brain Marsala. This dish is made with a mix of sheep brains, tomato, onion, and various spices and herbs. The dish is minced into a fine consistency using two wide bladed knifes shaped kind of like spatulas. The chef chops the mixture with rapid up and down movements of the knifes making a rhythmic sound not too far off from music (see video below). I was a little hesitant at first but decided to be polite and tried a little of the Brain Marsala when my host offered it to me. Not being a big fan of sheep, lamb, or mutton I did not really like the Marsala but I could see how many could find this tasty as you mostly taste the tomato and the spices.
Next came the kababs which were the star of our evening. The kebab dates back to the early Persian Empire and may have been invented by a soldier who was trying to find a way to cook his food with limited fuel. His solution was to cut the meat into smaller pieces so that it would cook faster, but lacking a grill or other cooking tool to hold the meat over the fire he skewered it on his sword and suspended it across the fire balanced on a pair of rocks, and the kebab was born. This cooking method evolved over time and the soldiers would often dig a long trench in the sand and line the edges with rocks building a fire in the middle and then suspending swords loaded with lamb, or what ever meat they could get, over the fire roasting their meals. Now you will find kebab restaurants all over the Middle East, and Central Asia using kebab grills like you see here which has a fan (to the left but out of the frame) that constantly blows over the hot coals producing very high heat allowing the kababs to cook fast sealing in the juices and the swords have been replaced with long skinny skewers.
After my tour of the restaurant I returned to the table to await my dinner, and I was not disappointed as one of the waiters approached with a large buffet serving dish loaded with meat piled upon meat piled upon meat piled upon rice. The dish had everything you could imagine from ground chicken and beef kababs, chicken kababs, fish kababs, lamb kababs, what looked like lamb ribs or chops, and some type of small bird about the size of a sparrow.
I loaded my plate with a mix of everything (except the lamb) scooping some of the rice from the bottom of the dish to finish off my plate. The meat was moist and juicy and full of flavors with everything grilled to perfection. The rice was mixed with raisins and had soaked up the juices from the meat piled on top allowing all the flavors to blend together.
Just when I thought I could not eat another bite, this dish of Gajar ka Halwa (Carrot Halwa) was placed in front of me to lend a nice sweet end to the dinner. The Halwa is made from a mix of minced carrot, nuts (pistachio and pine nuts in this case), milk, sugar, and spices like cardamom. The milk and the sugar combine to make a nice sweet syrup which is mixed in with the carrot and nuts. I think this is an excellent way to trick the kids into eating their carrots. In case you want to try this I found this recipe which seems to be fairly close to what we had http://www.manjulaskitchen.com/2007/04/26/gajar-ka-halwa-carrot-halwa/.
That finished my adventure in traditional Pakistani BBQ and only left me wanting more. Unfortunately I left a couple of days later so I will have to wait for my next visit.
Hope you enjoyed reading about it as much as I enjoyed eating it.