A Pakistani Brings the Flavors of His Hometown to Kuala Lumpur
KLue Issue 110 December 2007
Text: Robyn Eckhardt Photos: David Hagerman
It's a long way from KL to Lahore.
As we suffer through dripping skies and thick, wet heat, the capital city of Pakistan's fertile Punjab plains is awash in sunlight and shivering through temperatures that dip to freezing. While we gear up for the commercialized shopping frenzy that is Christmas, Lahoris ready themselves for Moharram, the first month of the Muslim calendar and the most sacred after Ramadan. As we thrill to the opening of not one, but two new shopping malls, the architectural heritage sites that dot Pakistan's storied second city give a nod to its ancient past.
KL may be apples to Lahore's oranges, but the two do have some things in common: keema, haleem, and zarda, to name a few. And thanks to a shy Lahori named Osman, ours may just be as tasty as theirs.
On a small lane that branches off Jalan Masjid Jamek sit a scrum of stalls offering naan and a few Pakistani dishes. The fare is not bad - hearty, somewhat flavorful - but all in all unremarkable. But the food that Osman serves from a nothing-much 'shop' at the end of a row of Malay stalls on nearby Lorong Bunus Dua is something else altogether.
Maybe it's because he hails from Lahore, a city whose residents are known for their love of eating. Maybe it's because this sturdy man obviously enjoys food himself. Or perhaps he's simply gifted in the kitchen arts (cooking being the trade he practiced before leaving Lahore not two years ago). He certainly likes to feed people. Tell him you're loving one of his creations and an ear-to-ear grin splits his usually solemn bearded mien in half. Osman derives much pleasure from the sight of a patron's cleaned plate.
Pakistani cuisine shows the influence of the foods of centuries of invaders (Alexander the Great and the Mughuls among them) and the many Indian Muslims who immigrated to the country in 1947 during the Partition from India. It's Punjabi with hints of Central Asia (the origin of the rounded vertical oven known as the tandoor), Persia, and the Middle East, sometimes challengingly spicy but also delicately aromatic. The country's regions connote culinary differences. Lahore is considered to have the best food of all.
Osman's sweets laid the trail to his savories. For the last two years he's been a fixture at the Brickfields Deepvali market, selling his heavenly homemade Pakistani halwa (a cross between a nutty Indian sweetmeat and Middle Eastern-style sesame-based halva) and rich Punjabi sweets such as burfi and fresh milk cakes. His mention of a fledgling Jalan Masjid India enterprising offering more substantial fare elicited enthusiastic response from these customers, and he offered a primer on how to find the place:
'Turn right at the Mydin - not the one selling clothes. If you get lost, telephone, and someone will come to fetch you!
The result was a lunch, taken by the tandoor, of flat breads (pillowy naan and ghee-laden paratha), keema (a dry minced-meat 'curry' dotted with peas), crispy okra flavored with onions, and tomato-ey channa dal. Because it was Sunday nihari, a cardamom-fragrant but tongue-numbingly spicy stew of tender beef in an impossibly smooth sauce garnished with shards of fresh ginger, also graced the table. All were accompanied by slices of raw onion, a condiment characteristic of the Pakistani table. Customers drifted in post-prayers at the nearby mosque, greeting each other in Urdu and English and filling the limited number of sears. The naan was so delicious that a takeaway order of ten somehow found its way into the hands of these visitors too stuffed to finish their nihari.
Daily specials are a sure sign of a cook who refused to be slap-dash with the preparation of traditionally complicated, long-cooked dishes. On Friday and Sunday it's chicken biryani. On Monday, mutton kofta. On Wednesdays diners are treated to a dish often taken during Moharram: haleem, a comfortingly warm-spiced porridge of wheat, lentils, and meat.
Osman, a friendly man but one, nonetheless, of reserve, is less than forthcoming when asked how and where he learned to cook. There the English - he doesn't speak much of it (and we speak even less Urdu) - but there's also his air of embarrassed humility. But ask if he has any sweets stashed away in the kitchen, and virtual verbosity ensues.
'You must come back on Friday,' he says, with what could almost be described as a twinkle in his eye, 'for the zarda (sweet rice pudding with nuts and raisins)!'
Osman's small shop is near the end of Lorong Bunus Dua, just off Jalan Masjid Jamek. As he says, take a right at the Mydin - and look for the tandoor.