~ Smoked Dhaba Karhai ~

“Food is for eating, and good food is to be enjoyed. I think food is, actually, very beautiful in itself” (Delia Smith) and Pakistani cuisine even though is the lesser known in the culinary world, is one of the most complex and diverse cuisines of Asian heritage and cultures. It is a melting pot of Middle eastern, Indian and Chinese Cuisine. The best facet about the food culture though, is, it’s street food. Yes! it’s not fancy or gourmet or has a regal hotel ambiance but it sure can beat any fancy resturant dish any day as Julia Child says it, “cooking well does not mean cooking fancy” and it is true down to every word, that if you want to explore and discover food scenes of a particular place, you need to venture down it’s street food. As staunch a street-food-culture cult is, there is no denying, you can’t help but become an avid follower of it; and true that for Karachi. The flavours are exceptional, the aroma of the brewing stews, steaming biryani, frying jalaybi’s, sight of Pani puree, the addictive fragrance of roasted corn and samosas, not to mention Paratha Rolls and Bun Kebabs, oh my my!! all of this engulfs me, leaves me reminiscing of my university days in the city a decade ago. I tell you, no lavish fancy hotel or restaurant can compete with the earthy, exotic and native flavours of the street food in Karachi.

Then there are the Dhaba’s situated along side the highway that leads from Karachi to Hyderabad, another small city in the Province of Sindh, in Pakistan. These Dhaba’s are nothing like the contemporary cafe’s, hotels or resturants. They are an open air, out door, very casual and extremely homey oasis in the middle of no where, serving the most rustic dishes packed full of robust and punching flavours. One such that I am talking about does not even have chairs to sit in, instead you sit on a wooden bedstead made cosy with cotton sheets and scattered pillows and enjoy the meal sitting down. It is not just the ambience of the place, the light breeze, soft gentle lighting, trees and flowers all around, a starry night and if you are lucky, a big bright shining moon with moon beams scattering across the sky, the smell of grilling and BBQ’ing Tikka’s, Naan bread, roasting lamb, chicken and ribs, wafting smoke on one side of the Dhaba, with men fanning away the coals to cook the meat; I tell you it’s a night worth having a rustic native dinner. Amazingly, everything is also cooked in rustic style i.e. on coals. Every dish in the place is prepared on coals instead of a gas burner which gives the flavours a very organic, nature inspired and unptetentious texture and warmth. Ofcourse, the first time I went there, I had just gotten married and my husband took me to dinner there. My first thought was very confusing, as it seemed not at all romantic, but I was wrong, it was extremely romantic. I can never forget that night.

Besides the ambience, it’s the food that really is the talk of the town there. I don’t know what spices they use but the simplest of dishes is rich in flavours, in particular, the smoked Karahai. The reason it is called Karahai or Kadi Chicken is because it is roasted and cooked in a heavy based, deep and circular cooking vessel very similar to a Chinese wok, called Karahai. Hence, the dish is named after the cooking utensil it is prepared in. Not only is it cooked in a wok-simialer karhai but also served in steel utensils shaped the same. Hey! if its karhai you are talking about, then it has to be Karhai in the truest sense of the word all the way from cooking to serving. This is what we in Karachi call, eating Karhai style.

It is believed to have originated in the mountains of Afgahnistan travelling all the way down to the Province of Punjab in Pakistan. It is no mystery, the dish is a local favourite and a staple in a Pakistani house hold. My mom used to cook the dish the day she felt she was not in the mood of cooking because it’s quick to make and every one just loves digging in the juices of the meat with a Naan bread.

Coming to the recipe, It is cooked in the most conventional method it has always been prepared in, by braising and roasting the meat on a high flame until the juices of the meat are caramelized and the water is all evaporated. A few things that you should know; firstly, the best way to cook the dish is to cook it on high flame. The frying of the meat is what gives this dish it’s umph of flavour; the meat becomes tender with a golden crisp texture and colour. The first step is the key to an amazing Karhai. Second, I would highly recommend the use of crushed black peper. It adds real zing to the flavour. Third, if you have the time and would really love to enjoy the earthy flavour of the dish, I would suggest dry roasting the cumin and coriander seeds and coarsely crushing them. This helps the spice release it’s flavour whole-heartedly and gives the dish it’s earthy tone of flavour. The rest is pretty simple, keep the flame nice and high, stir it every now and then, add the spices, chillies and yogurt and tomatoes for the gravy and you are done in 20 minutes.

As far as green chillies is concerned in the dish, both button green chillies and small green chillies can be used. The difference between the both although, is that, the button free chillies are mild in spice as compared to the small green chillies that are extremely hot in flavour. The use of any offers great flavour to the dish and if you are not a spice lover, use the button chillies and remove the seeds to make the dish less spicy. However, having said that, I personally think you don’t have to worry about the heat of the dish being too hot because the added cream at the end cuts the spice of the dish perfectly making the balance of heat absolutely perfect.

Bullet Green Chilli
Small green chillies

Coming to the use of oil, do not be too alarmed to see 2 cups of oil in the recipe because that is only being used to fry the meat and give it colour and when it comes to preparing the dish, the amount required is 4-5 tbsp. The rest of the oil can still be used to cook other recipes.

Finally, if you see your meat sticking to the pan you are cooking in, don’t worry, simply add a little crushed garlic to the oil whilst frying the meat as it will help prevent the sticking of the meat and it gives off an absolutely gorgeous aroma. For me personally, I simply love the fragrance of frying chicken pieces, not to mention the beautiful golden colour.

I know, it’s not a traditional version of Karhai because of the use of cream and yogurt in it and the fact it is smoked at the end to have a smoky flavour to it; even so, it’s a Dhaba (road-side stop cafe) version which has flavours that are earthy, smoky and piquant. The flavours are perfectly spiced together making the dish a definite favourite for quick and flavoursome dinners.

This dish is noted for its spicy edge and so if you are a spice lover, this dish will definitely grab your palate and if you have left overs, an amazing breakfast with Paratha or Fried Naan because it’s true “my favourite time of the day is to get up and eat left overs from dinner, especially spicy food” (David Byrne).

~ Smoked Dhaba Karhai ~

5 minPrep Time

30 minCook Time

35 minTotal Time

Yields 4-6

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  • Chicken with bone -- 1 kg
  • Oil divided -- 2 cups for frying/ 4 tbsp for cooking
  • Salt -- 1 tsp
  • Red Chilli Flakes -- 1 tsp
  • Roasted Cumin seeds -- 1 tsp
  • Roasted Coriander seeds -- 1 tsp
  • Crushed Black Pepper -- 1/2 tsp
  • White pepper -- 1/2 tsp
  • Garlic crushed -- 5 cloves
  • Ginger Julianne -- 2 tsp
  • Green chillies -- 4
  • Tomatoes sliced -- 3
  • Yogurt -- 1/4 cup
  • Dry Fenugreek leaves -- 2 tsp
  • Cream -- 1 tbsp
  • Garam Masala -- 1/4 tsp
  • Coriander leaves -- to garnish
  • Coal - 1 piece


  1. Method ~
  2. In a fry pan, dry roast the cumin and coriander seeds until fragrant.
  3. Put them in a zip lock bag and use a rolling pin to crush them coarsely (Alternatively use a Pastel and mortar or a spice blender).
  4. Wash the chicken pieces.
  5. In a Karhai or a deep skillet, heat the oil and fry the chicken pieces on high heat.
  6. Fry the pieces until they are light golden and are 80% cooked. This takes about 8-10 minutes.
  7. Take the chicken out and set the frying oil aside.
  8. Now take 4 tbsp from the same oil for preparing the kadai.
  9. Add crushed garlic and fry for 1 minute.
  10. Add the fried chicken.
  11. Add red chilli flakes.
  12. Slit the green chillies into two and add them in.
  13. Fry for 1 minute and add the sliced tomatoes.
  14. Cover the skillet and let the tomatoes cook for a good 5-8 minutes.
  15. Keep stirring every couple of minutes.
  16. Add the roasted cumin and coriander, yogurt, salt, white pepper and crushed black pepper.
  17. Stir to combine and let cook on high flame for 8-10 minutes or until all the water has evaporated and the oil is separated from the gravy.
  18. Keep stirring every couple of minutes.
  19. Add the cream, fenugreek leaves and Garam Masala and mix.
  20. Turn the flame to low and cover the dish.
  21. Heat a piece of coal and place it in a foil cup between the dish.
  22. Turn the heat off and pour a little oil on top. As it starts to smoke, cover the dish and leave it for 5 minutes.
  23. Discard the coal after and garnish with coriander leaves and julienned ginger.
  24. Serve with Naan bread.

~ Happy Foodieating ~

One Comment Add yours

  1. Thank you for sharing this delicious recipe! i love it

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