By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Diners with a penchant for international cuisine have grown familiar with curry dishes from the Punjab provinces of India and Pakistan, where they are often laced with butter or cream in their American incarnations. In many cases they taste the same, and the restaurants that serve them are everywhere.
But there’s a new kitchen in town challenging the status quo with curries, stews and even sandwiches common to Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province, thus exposing us to recipes that are strikingly novel.
Pakistan native Selina Khan opened House of Khan a few months ago after operating a pop-up restaurant in the College Area. Prior to that, she earned a master’s degree in global politics from The London School of Economics, where she developed a knack for cooking within the confines of her dorm. Owning a restaurant has been on her bucket list ever since.
“This is a campaign for real curry, the way we make it at home,” she says, referring to her moderate use of chilies and prolific reliance on cumin and tomatoes. Dairy is absent from her dishes with the exception of a terrific cilantro-yogurt sauce accompanying pastry-encased samosas and veggie fritters (pakoras) battered decadently in chickpea flour.
A similar, feistier sauce the menu calls “cilantro chutney” appeared on a crazy-good “bun kebab” involving an egg-washed potato cake tucked into a burger roll with onions. Khan says it’s common street food in Pakistan. For me, it was one of the best appetizers to pass my lips in months.
Meals at House of Khan come with a side of Ludo, an English adaptation of Pachisi that’s popular throughout India and Pakistan, especially among children. There’s a boxed game of Ludo on every table amid sea-green walls and illuminated niches showing off copper pots. This used to be Mama Testa. The layout is the same, but the motif is exotically more soothing except for the lack of soundproofing.
My vegetarian companion had no problem finding dishes that appealed to his love of curry. He ordered two entrees that left us undecided over which tasted best. The eggplant aubergine was beautifully sweet and spicy, revealing sturdy flavors from a sauce of tenderly reduced tomatoes and cumin-heavy seasonings that undoubtedly included chilies.
The chickpea curry dish appeared to have a similar sauce but it tasted different just as Khan had assured that “no two curry sauces are alike.” Here, the flavors of mustard seed and perhaps fennel rang through, seeping effectively into the softly cooked beans. Both meals were accompanied by fluffy basmati rice.
I ordered nihari, a brown stew made normally with lamb in India but containing beef shank in Kahn’s hometown version.
“We love our beef,” said Khan, referring also to such menu items as aloo keema (spiced ground beef with potatoes) and a seasoned burger topped with cilantro chutney.
The slow-cooked stew was served with a glossy film of vegetable oil on the surface, which wasn’t an accident but rather a necessary, authentic ingredient for achieving silkiness.
“In Pakistan, you know the food is cooked with the oil comes to the top,” she added.
The dish looked similar to American beef stew but tasted a far cry from how our mothers made it. Slightly spicy, it revealed intriguing hints of curry and with the benefit of beef marrow melted throughout from extra bones that Khan tosses in during the cooking process. It was love at first bite.
Kahn’s succinct menu concludes with a few homemade desserts such as fruity snow cones and ice cream floats drizzled with rose syrup.
We chose the fruit trifle, a chilled, super-refreshing mesh of pineapple, jelly and sponge cake that we washed down with pink Kashmiri tea spiked with cardamom and cinnamon. Like liquid coffee cake, the tea is served traditionally at Pakistani weddings and takes about a half-hour to brew, but it’s worth the wait.
House of Khan brings to Hillcrest a type of cuisine we haven’t seen before, proving that where basmati rice and curry is served doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll end up with tikki masala.
—Contact Frank Sabatini Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org.