Chicken handi is the dish that defines Pakistani food for me. The first time I tried it I was sitting on the roof of Cuckoo’s Den in Lahore–a former brothel famously converted to an eccentric restaurant with a romantic nighttime view of the Badshahi Mosque. I remember the sweat-soaked shirt plastered against my lower back and thinking that there was no way I’d have an appetite in the heat.
But when that little clay pot was placed on the table and the smell of stewed chicken, masala-spiced tomatoes, fresh cilantro and crushed cashews rose in the humid air I was hungry, no matter the temperature.
For years I’ve been trying to find handi in Seattle, or even just really good Pakistani food. When I asked one Pakistani friend where I might get an authentic dinner he said grumpily, “It’s mostly lumped in with Indian food,” but gave me some suggestions including Kabab Palace in Kirkland.
Chicken Karahi–a close cousin of handi–was on the online menu so I called up the owner, Qudus Malik, and asked if he’d be up for an interview.
Kirkland in January is a far cry from Lahore in May. It was 5:00PM and pitch black when I arrived under the neon red sign. Inside, cricket was on the flat screen and the first customers of the evening were settling in to watch the game.
Qudus had invited his brother Malik Shah Khan, owner of Cedars Restaurant in the University District, to join us. While Qudus hurried back into the kitchen to work on my special-requested handi I asked Malik what he thought defined Pakistani cuisine. “Freshly ground spices!” was his nearly shouted response.
In fact he and Qudus were so insistent on this point that they almost confiscated the packaged garam masala (a popular spice medley) I had purchased at the nearby International Food Bazaar (a great place to get South Asian specialty foods like beef bacon, goat meat and naan pizza, as well as hard-to-find flours and spices).
I resorted to begging until they reluctantly let me keep my purchase, but insisted on augmenting my supply with their own homemade mixture—a deep rust-colored powder so strong it nearly scalded my nasal passages.
As the banging-pot and sizzling-oil kitchen sounds intensified, I told Malik about my love of handi and asked him for a little more background. Malik explained that handi refers to the clay or metal pot that the dish is cooked in and compared the method to cooking a stew in a crockpot–emphasizing that it’s more of a traditional comfort food than a showy restaurant food.
“Handi is special not because it’s fancy, but because it takes time to make it,” he explained.
Maybe it was the conversation (or the piles of crispy pakoras), but I didn’t notice it taking all that long before Qudus was setting the long sought-after dish in front of me–served in a sparkling metal pot sprinkled with toasted cashews and bright green cilantro leaves.
The stewed dark-meat chicken was tender and the tomato sauce full of clove and chili flavors—just a little bit oily in a delicious, gravy sort of way. I ate it pushed up against a big puffy pile of biryani (a rice pilaf served with raisins and a boiled egg garnish) and could almost believe there was a 95-degree Lahori night unfolding outside instead of a cold January rush hour.