Bihar is a state in northern India. Its population is mainly Hindu, and therefore the cuisine is traditionally vegetarian. So it’s ironic that one of the most popular dishes in neighboring Pakistan is a grilled beef dish called bihari kabab.
The provenance of bihari kabab is disputed, but it likely originated among the non-vegetarian population of Bihar, and sometime later became popular as a fast food/street food in Pakistan.
Kind of an obscure topic, right? I mean, what does a trans-bordered (and trans-religion) food dish native to provincial areas of south Asia have to do with food in Houston? Because, according to my Indian and Pakistani friends, one of the most authentic (and delicious) bihari kabab dishes you will eat outside of Pakistan can be found in a hole-in-the-wall kabab house in far west Houston called Bundu Khan.
The first thing you see when you step into Bundu Khan is a refrigerated glass case stacked high with skewers of chicken and meat. Directly behind the case and the ordering area is a long charcoal grill where the kababs are cooked. The menu is small, maybe 7-8 main courses, and some drinks and desserts. I was here for the bihari kabab and placed my order with the young Hispanic man behind the bar (the owners are Pakistani, but in true Houston form the front-of-house staff is Hispanic).
“Beef or chicken?” he asked. The dish is traditionally beef, but in a nod to Indian Hindus who don’t eat beef, chicken is offered. I went with the beef.
“How spicy?” This is always a good sign when you are a “Westerner” eating in an “ethnic” restaurant known for spicy food. More than a few times I’ve been to a restaurant and got the “gringo treatment” where waiters or chefs – without even asking – pull punches when it comes to exotic ingredients or the spiciness of a dish. I gave him a thumbs up and said, “Make it hot. Hotter the better.” I also ordered a sweet lassi as a hedge against the potential heat of the kabab.
He wrote up the order and I pulled out my wallet to pay. “No worries, just pay when you leave.” I like counter-service restaurants that follow this procedure. It’s like they’re saying, “You seem like a nice fellow, you’re welcome here. We’re going to make sure you are fed well first, then we’ll settle up the bill.” I sat down in a dining room filled with a South Asian clientele and waited for my order.
The recipe for bihari kabab varies, but the basic ingredients are thin slices of tenderized beef (pasanday), yogurt, papaya paste, and spices such as garam masala, cumin and chili powder. The spices, yogurt and papaya are combined into a marinade, and then the meat is threaded onto a skewer and marinated for several hours. The kabab is then cooked over a charcoal grill.
The bihari kabab at Bundu Khan is served with lemons, cucumbers and onions. A thin raita sauce (yogurt, cucumber, herbs and spices) and a sweet tamarind sauce are offered as condiments. The obligatory naan (oven-baked flatbread) is ordered separately for $1 a basket.
The first thing I did was to pinch off and taste a piece of the wonderfully tenderized and charred kabab meat. The spiciness, especially the cumin and chili powder, was so overwhelming you could barely taste the meat! With the array of ingredients and condiments before me, I knew there must be a technique for softening and balancing the flavor of the kabab. I stole a sideways glance to the customers around me and watched their technique. Here are a few tips for eating bihari kabab (note that these are based on the traditional etiquette of eating Pakistani/Indian food with your fingers).
First, completely drench the kabab with the lemon juice. Pour some of the raita in the individual plate provided to you. Tear off a piece of naan and use it as a pouch to grab a piece of the kabab. Wedge in a piece of cucumber and onion, and then dredge the lot of it in the raita on your plate. Take a bite. The combination and diversity of flavor and texture is astounding. The cucumber and yogurt of the raita combined with the fresh cucumber perfectly balanced and complemented the yogurt/spice marinade of the kabab. A hint of beef flavor emerged. If you want to add a touch of sweetness, drizzle on some of the tamarind sauce.
There are a few things you should know before you try the Pakistani cuisine at Bundu Khan. Service can be gruff, or at least succinct. The service here is best described as accommodating and efficient. Also, the restaurant is housed in an older structure that is a bit worn around the edges (though perfectly clean). On the summer afternoon I visited, the temperature in the dining room was cool but not cold, and not uncomfortable. In other words, if you’re expecting a T.G.I. Friday’s experience, i.e. a smiling, flair-laden hostess seating you in a shiny new building air conditioned to arctic temperatures, then Bundu Khan may not be for you.
After demolishing my bihari kabab, naan and lassi, I approached the counter and paid the bill (about $12). As I walked out, I noticed a South Asian woman – who earlier had been working behind the counter – sitting down at a table. She was joined by two teenagers and an older gentleman. Were these the owners having dinner in their own restaurant? What looked like the entire menu of Bundu Khan was arrayed before them.
This blog entry was originally posted 27 July 2010 on the www.29-95.com website.