Pakistan’s ancient walled city of Peshawar is famous for myriad reasons. Besides its rich history, architecture and traditions, it is particularly well-known for its delectable Khyber cuisine, with its tender meat and spices done just right.
Whenever there is a mention of Khyber cuisine, the first name that comes to mind is that of Peshawar’s Namak Mandi (the salt market). According to some, the place was once a center for salt trade in the region in the pre-partition (of India) era. This business diminished over the years, but the place has retained the name. Although now saturated with dry fruit shops, medicine markets, grocery shops and even banks, the larger part of Namak Mandi is dominated by restaurants offering mostly lamb and chicken dishes, among others.
The two main dishes that have earned Namak Mandi its repute are namkeen (salty) tikka and lamb karahi. Passing through the luminous bazaar, skinned whole lambs and chicken hanging outside eateries is a common sight. Besides the hustle and bustle of the city, you also hear the clatter of ladle spoons and woks outside these restaurants and see cooks vigorously fanning tikkas skewed on open pits or barbecue grills and emitting white clouds of aromatic smoke.
According to a news report, around 40 shops of karahi tikka in Namak Mandi sell around 45 mounds (1800 kilogram or almost 4,000 lbs) of meat on a daily basis to customers who visit from different parts of the country. Although Namak Mandi hosts so many restaurants offering almost the same menu, Nisar Charsi Tikka Sheesh Mahal attracts the largest number of customers, who specially come to visit the “Charsi Tikka” shop. “We have one shop in Namak Mandi only. Others using Charsi name are fake.” This is what they mention on their billboard to keep their customers aware of the “fakes”.
On the entrance to the restaurant, there is a butcher’s station displaying skinned lambs, where you order the quantity of meat that you want to eat. The butcher will weigh and cut it into pieces for you. The meat is placed in a wok with your name written on a piece of paper. Next to it is the cash counter.
Although the restaurant also offers white meat, dam pukht, rosh and sajji in its menu, the lamb karahi (also known as Shinwari karahi) and namkeen tikka remain its specialties. All of them are made fresh to order.
Facing the butcher’s station is their live kitchen, visible to the guests, where there is a long cooking station with more than 20 burners fixed on it. The meat woks from lamb karahi orders reach here directly. The three cooks in the cooking station tirelessly work on all 20 burners simultaneously.
When my order reached the kitchen, the chef Hukmaran Khan sprinkled the meat with coarse salt and poured lamb fat on it. He placed the wok on the burner to cook, covering it with a smaller wok as a lid. The chef kept tossing it frequently with the help of pliers-shaped tongs and a ladle spoon and when the meat started to turn white, he added tomatoes and green chilly to it. Once the meat is tender, your meal is ready to eat. It usually takes almost one hour to cook.
Although the restaurant has a dining hall with chairs and tables, there is an open veranda on the backside that offers a more traditional setting with old architectural look and vintage lamp posts. They have placed charpoys there with serving tables placed in their center. Their barbeque grill is positioned here.
Three chefs work here to cater to namkeen tikka lovers. Malang Jan is one of them. Malangay (as they call him in Pashto) dusts the meat with salt and skews it. “This is paharri (coarse) salt,” he explains. The skewer is turned over the grill every few minutes. The smokiness of the coal adds depth to the flavour. It takes almost 50 minutes for a skewer to get ready.
The ground floor is specified for male customers only while upstairs is a family hall and rooms with traditional floor seating. Your meal is served to you in the same wok, now placed on a cane tablemat with raaeta, salad and simple tandoori naan. After eating, many enjoy Peshawari kehwa (green tea), resting their backs against bolsters.
Talking to us, Nasir Khan (55) said that he runs the business with his elder brother Nisar Khan. They inherited the business from their father Ishaq Khan who set it up some 55 years back. “Ours was the first lamb karahi shop in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). Another one of this kind was there in Landikotal area of tribal Khyber Agency. It was my father, a Shinwari, who introduced the lamb karahi taste in KP,” he added proudly. The Shinwari is an ethnic Pashtun tribe living on both sides of the Durand Line.
In the early days of their eatery, as Nasir said, their cuisine did not get immediately popular with Peshawarites, who were not accustomed to animal fat’s flavor – the main ingredient of their dishes. It was the people from Waziristan tribal agency, Sadda, and Parachinar areas who comprised most of their customers. These tribal people referred to his father, who used to smoke hashish occasionally, as “charsi” and this became the reason for the name of their restaurant “Charsi Tikka”.
The owner proudly said that so many well-known personalities including politicians and cricketers were among their customers. Former late president Ghulam Ishaq Khan was also one of them. According to Nasir Khan, they have also cooked meals for General Pervez Musharraf in historical Balahisar Fort, for Mian Mohammad Nawaz Sharif in Raiwind and for Imran Khan in Bani Gala.
“Not only Peshawarites, but also people from other parts of the country eat here now. Even once an angraiz (foreigner) visited my restaurant telling me that he came all the way from his country to visit our place, besides other historical sites of Peshawar. I am not educated. Hard work is the trait I inherited from my father. Now we have our outlets in Rawalpindi, Rawat and Wah cities of the Punjab province as well. All this is the blessing of the Almighty,” Nasir went on to add with a sense of gratitude.
The “angraiz” he was referring to was perhaps either Mark Wiens or Trevor James. Mark Wiens, an American national now based in Thailand, posts his food and travel vlogs on his YouTube channel that has more than six million subscribers. During his visit to Peshawar some one year ago, he could be seen having a meal at Charsi Tikka.
Trevor James, also known as The Food Ranger on YouTube, is a Canadian-born food and travel vlogger and has more than four million YouTube subscribers. He had also posted a vlog some one year back on Peshawari street food, which featured Charsi Tikka as well. In his vlog, he can be seen calling the restaurant’s food as “the ultimate Peshawari feast” …
Meanwhile, my meal was ready to eat. The waiter serving it smiles, “Whoever eats here once gets addicted to the taste. That’s why it is called Charsi Tikka.”
From the next table, Mrs. Khurram visiting from Karachi with her husband fully agrees. With shining eyes, she calls: “You’re in for a treat. Bon appétit!”
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This article first appeared in Naya Daur. Click here to go to the original.