Although the Pakistani city of Peshawar is now sadly synonymous with terrorism, the gateway to the Khyber Pass is also renowned for its fine cuisine. In fact, it’s practically illegal to return from Peshawar without savouring the legendary chapli kebabs. These are not to be confused with shami kebabs (boiled lamb minced with lentils), or seekh kebabs (minced lamb grilled on skewers). Let’s leave out the kofte and the doner which aren’t Pakistani at all. The kebabs making me salivate are named after a shoe, because the perfect chapli kebab should be as thin and flat as the sole of the chapli, as the flip flop is known in Pakistan.
The Pashtuns of Peshawar are celebrated consumers of meat. Chicken is strictly for wimps. Real men eat either big meat (beef) or small meat (mutton or lamb), and lots of it. And no matter how intensely your vegetarian tendencies might be roused by the delightful display of freshly slaughtered cow backsides, hanging off the butcher’s hooks with their tails still intact, let me assure you that the aroma of the spiced kebabs is enough to weaken the strongest resolve. Each kebab is the size of a small plate, made with around half a pound of spiced ground beef, deep fried for good measure in animal fat. Needless to say, street food in Pakistan carries a health warning. Chances are, that if the dubious hygiene or the quantity of meat doesn’t upset your stomach, the chapli kebabs will certainly help to bring that heart attack a bit closer. But believe me, these kebabs are the most succulent you’ll ever taste, so they’re well worth the health risk.
The best kebabs I’ve eaten are the ones served from shacks rather than the smart eateries. There’s a raised platform dedicated to kebab making, with another devoted to the tandoor for baking naan. A man clad in shalwar kameez, with requisite beard, is in charge of each operation. The kebab maker sits cross legged in front of the largest frying vat known to man. The flat bottomed vessel sits at an angle on an open fire, pushing the smoking fat to one side. This allows the kebab maker to flatten the ball of meat straight onto the raised base of the frying vessel, before deftly, daringly, sliding the kebab down into the smoking hot fat with his bare fingers. He uses the long poker in his other hand to turn the kebab, and once crisp and golden brown on the outside, and mouth-wateringly soft and succulent within, he uses the implement to pull the kebab out.
Male customers are at liberty to tuck in publicly, as they perch on the charpois laid out on the roadside. But in this conservative heartland, you’ll need to eat in the privacy of your car if there are any women in your party – juggling the accompanying salad and yoghurt bowls on your lap as you break off hunks of kebab with the soft naan. You’ll be hard pushed to find a cold beer in these Islamic regions, but you could do worse than an ice cold 7-Up to wash the meal down. It does wonders for one’s digestion too. It’s also little wonder that the Pashtuns sip sweet aromatic kava or green tea after every meal. If nothing else, it surely helps to dislodge the congealed grease from your arteries!