A ‘karahi’ is a cast-iron-wok-wannabee cooking-pot that is often used to prepare various stews originating from the subcontinent. So in a sense, chicken karahi, mutton karahi, and even paneer (cheese) karahi, refer to what receptacle the ingredients are cooked in rather than how they are prepared.
From a colloquial standpoint, karahi is usually a stew that contains most or all of the following: tomatoes, green chilies, garlic, ginger, chili powder, lemon, salt, black pepper, dried fenugreek leaves, and some form of protein. There is a variant of karahi that involves using yogurt and black pepper in lieu of the tomato reduction, something that leads to a relatively blander but more succulent marination of meat.
I know. It’s confusing. But it works.
Butt Karahi is the acclaimed king of karahi in Lahore. Though the karahi is sold by the kilogram and the restaurant is swamped by smelly, sweaty dudes in undershirts, perhaps the biggest compliments to the establishment are its copycats. Getting to Lakshmi Chowk, past the clotted roads and overflowing shops is a task and a half. Getting there and maintaining some sense of sanity is tough, but not impossible.
There’s about four or five different Butt Karahis adjacent to each other. Each claims to be the OG. When we go there in Ramzan, at sehri, all of them are packed like boxes of cigarettes when your money’s running low. Does it matter which one we go to? At this point, probably not; they all probably beg, borrow, and steal recipes from each other on the reg anyway. But we like to think we’re going to the authentic one. So we pick the one that we believe is the ‘realest’ and wait for 30 minutes while tables are cleared for our party of 12.
While we wait, we are mobbed by a wide range of people: street hawkers selling Chinese toys prod us with blunt instruments, as beggars, who somehow become more pushy and confrontational in this part of town, seem to be breathing down our necks. There’s ‘professional’ masseuses offering to knead your shoulders and temples as you binge, lest your muscles get tired. Unattended children zip between people’s legs, screaming, squealing, and just being obnoxious all around. We buy a hand-massager that looks suspiciously like it was supposed to be a vibrator.
Lakshmi Chowk is not for the fainthearted. With long wait times, smelly streets, and a brash ambiance overall, it’s an endeavor that will test your best and worst traits. We order 4 kilos of the chicken karahi and 7 kilos of the mutton karahi prior to being seated. With several dozen other customers attempting to place orders alongside us, it’s probably good that I’ve been hitting the gym more often these past few weeks. Navigating this fish market requires a tad bit of brute force.
We’re seated in a dirty, smelly, and humid room that has metal tables and chairs lined up. This has to be some sort of fire hazard. We sit shoulder-to-shoulder, with minimal leg space and no personal space, and see at least 6 sticks of butter go to the outdoor cooking area at the entrance for our order. At the end of the night, we had consumed all 6.
After some goofing around and impatience, the food arrives in karahis so large I could take a nap in them. Accompanied by rotis the size of large pizzas, we begin our free-for-all assault. There is no concept of using plates. We use the karahi as our communal receptacle, and scrape, scoop, and coax the tomato-based reductions into our gaping mouths thankfully. Our hands crisscross, we smear the stew onto our jeans and surroundings, and we don’t think too much overall. This is the closest a Pakistani man gets to the state of nature.
The mutton and chicken karahi look extremely different to my eyes.
Brighter, and adorned with more cilantro and general shrubbery, the chicken karahi seems similar to the essentials an authentic Italian margherita pizza: simple, vibrant, and tasty. The tomatoeyness gives the over-sized rotis something to think about and the sharp flavors pop in my mouth. It’s slightly spicy but rates quite low on the sleep-or-scream meter. We are kind enough to use the side plates for bones disposal after we have torn off the flesh that comes attached. It’s oily and will give us all heartburn and indigestion later, but we’ve worked hard for this. In minutes, the chicken karahi has been defiled.
The mutton karahi is a different beast. Muted flavors offer complexity, and a smooth, cream like texture. The mutton falls apart as it is nudged with rotis, a real treat for any red meat lover. It is garnished a bit more modestly than the chicken variant, and the masala (the actual stew) is thick and robust. Rich and fragrant, it offers a break from the chicken, so much so, that the chicken almost acts like an appetizer to the main course. Each flavor is separated and unified within the same bite. The black pepper strikes a different taste bud as the subtly seasoned mutton caresses another. If the chicken karahi was a rap track, this is a symphony.
11 kilograms of karahi later, we’re stuffed but not content. Holy fuck, we’re not content? Madmen.
There’s plenty of dessert options around, and we opt for Yousuf Falooda. I will save Yousuf Falooda for a different review, but would like to point out here that it is a milk /jelly/basil seed based concoction that often includes vermicelli noodles. I know this because my shirt enjoyed it quite a bit, and I scrubbed each ingredient out categorically. It was not pretty.
Butt Karahi has nothing to do with butts, at least not that I know of. What it does have to do with are the basic principles of Pakistani cuisine, and the undying love for food that our community collectively embraces. And it’s experiences like this that make it important to dwell on the simple stuff, even if only once a year.