When it comes to Pakistani food, we, the British restaurant-going public, are unwitting Punjab supremacists. Our experience of Pakistani cuisine begins and ends with the butter chicken, basmati rice, and seekh kebabs of Punjab, the most populous of the country’s four provinces.
This island’s culinary experiences have long been shaped by historical trends in immigration. Hundreds of thousands of Punjabis came to the UK during the 20th century, opening restaurants and spreading their cuisine. Immigration from Pakistan’s other regions, such as the predominantly Pashtun north-west, was much lighter. How can we be faulted for our ignorance of Pashtun food if we’ve never had the chance to try it? Well, now we have that chance, and we’d be fools to miss it.
Khyber Kebab is a tiny new takeaway and delivery restaurant located deep in Cowley. It serves (at extraordinarily low prices) a range of dishes from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which borders Afghanistan in Pakistan’s mountainous north-west. The region’s cuisine, and the menu, synthesises a tantalising array of cultural influences. The influence of the Indian Sub-Continent is unmistakable, but equally strong consistencies are to be found with the culinary traditions of Central Asia and, Persia.
The chapli kebab, a round, flattened chunk of spice-infused mincemeat, is a great place to start. It takes a bit of chewing, but you’ll get your just rewards. Each meeting of the molars procures delicious juices with a deep umami taste. You’ll notice some more subtle individual flavours too, courtesy of the tomatoes, onions, and various herbs chopped into the meat. Gaze over the counter into the open kitchen as the meat fries in a giant tava (a disk-shaped frying pan you couldn’t get your arms around).
The chapli kebab is best consumed engulfed in an enormous, freshly prepared naan. The combination of the kebab’s meaty flavours and the doughy texture of the warm naan is bliss; Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s answer to the hamburger. Salads and sauces are not to be forgotten. My choice of a mint and chilli sauce combo was a fluke, but like the accidental invention of Coca-Cola or the discovery of penicillin, it will have its mark on history. The mint sauce provides exactly the sort of cooling contrast a meal like this needs, a bit like the sour cream in a burrito. A chapli kebab naan, which is more than enough for lunch, will set you back £2.99.
The chargha chicken, a dish of Punjabi origins, is another winner. Each morning, a flock of marinated chickens is hung up to slowly spit roast at the back of the kitchen, and, by around two o’clock, chargha chicken is on the menu. Before it is served, the chosen chicken is allowed to sizzle on a charcoal grill where it is unceremoniously, but expertly, slathered in a spicy paste. The white meat of a chicken can often be dry and bland, almost a chore to eat – but not here. The flavour percolates from the succulent, spicy skin down to each bone. The price? A fiver.
I must note that standard fast-food fare (burgers, chips, wings etc.) is on offer too. But come on, have some imagination. While you wait for your food, take a quick break from watching the meat sizzle and head to the next-door corner shop to grab a bottle of imported Shezan fruit juice. There’s nothing like sweet, smooth mango pulp to soothe your tingling taste buds. A perfect complement to this feast. The flavour and the price seems too good to be true, and it almost is. The restaurant’s distant location and lack of any seating mean that to avoid a delivery fee and to get the food fresh, a cycle ride is required. But in this balmy weather, that almost seems a treat.
Khyber Kebab is just six weeks old and sure to grow in popularity in the coming months. With the specialised talents of the chefs, the restaurant will quickly garner a following of loyal devotees. Get there before the prices and crowds increase.