Thursday, August 19, 2010

Kabab King Ambassador Dinner

If the Ambassador Dinners are supposed to open our eyes to cuisines that some of us might have limited familiarity with, with the ambassador of the night ordering the food and treating the diner to a bit of cultural and culinary history , than Joseph Aranha of the Asian Arts and Cultural Council, and the Pakistani Ambassador Dinner, succeeded beyond my expectations. Before we sat down at one of the many tables in the private room upstairs at Kabab King for our dinner last Saturday, August 14th, Jeff Orlick, organizer extraordinaire, handed each of us a program, and we were off.

Menu for the Evening

Rose Milk with Spices
Paratha with Lentils and Salad
Liver Fry
Mutton Biryani
Brain Fry
Gulab Jamun
Spiced Tea

Just seeing the words "brain" and "fry" together on a page as something we were about to eat provoked at the very least a few giggles, but mostly curiosity and excitement for those of us who have never had a dish with brain as the main ingredient. As people walked in and took their seats, the waiters came around and placed plastic glasses full of the pink-tinged drink that would begin our night, the rose milk. It was sweet, but not overly so, with a subtle rose flavor. Then plates of salad appeared.

Once we were all in place, Joseph introduced himself and began to explain how we should approach the meal. We must taste the food, no gulping allowed. It would be family style, one bowl of each item per table of four, so as not to get too full, and if anyone were still hungry after the many courses he would take it upon himself to buy them dinner downstairs. There was a brief lesson on bodily functions and natural cleansing. The meal would start, as many meals do, with bread and lentils. Waiters appeared with bowls of lentils and platters of parathas, sliced in four pieces.

The paratha was stuffed with a spiced potato mixture, and I could've eaten the whole thing myself, but I resigned myself to one slice and shared the rest with my table mates, scooping up the lentils with tiny bites of bread. The lentils were soft and mild, but bits of the sliced raw ginger garnish added crunch and spice to the dish.

Joseph then asked us to open the large map of the Indian Subcontinent that he had placed on each table, so as to get a better idea of Pakistan's location.

It was a very large map.

Next, and one of our table's favorite dishes - the quail, along with some chicken kababs.

A closer look at the quail, with crisp, charred wings, and tender, smoky meat.
There were two per table, and the four of us wished we had more. The two types of chicken kababs that accompanied the quail on the sizzling plate were red, spiced chunks of chicken breast, also moist and flavorful, and a ground chicken mixture, also red, spicy, and very good. While we were enjoying our kababs, Joseph made sure that everyone listened to a small lesson on the history of Ramadan and its traditions, told by a very friendly man from Joseph's group, who went from table to table. It was somewhat difficult to concentrate on the concept of fasting while biting into a tiny quail leg, but I appreciated the learning experience.

Next came the liver fry, and haleem.

Large chunks of beef liver, again topped with freshly sliced ginger and cilantro. Some of the chunks some were a bit dense and tough, but the pieces that were at the bottom, absorbing the oil and liquid in the bowl, were softer. They had a nice flavor, milder than what I was expecting.

Haleem, a Pakistani specialty that I have never tried before, was very interesting. The mixture had a glutinous, paste-like consistency, with pieces of beef throughout. I don't know how to describe it or make it sound appetizing, but it was like a spiced porridge with bits of meat tossed in. To quote Elyaqim Mosheh Adam, table companion and map holder, the haleem at Kabab King "has the mouth-feel of shredded beef in split pea soup". It went over big at our table, particularly when we discovered that dipping the liver into the haleem somehow made both of them taste even better.

And there was more.

The mutton biryani did not have much mutton at all, but that was acceptable since the rice was tasty, and it was accompanying the brain fry.

Or brain masala, as the waiters called it when they placed the bowl on the table. The sauce was thick, rich, and highly spiced, perfect for spooning onto the rice. The brains themselves, goat brains, were yellow and creamy, similar in texture to scrambled eggs. Not an everyday dish, by any means, but I am happy to have tried brain fry once in my life.

After the main dishes, we were served dessert and tea. Gulab Jamun and masala chai.

Although we were full at that point, I definitely could have eaten more than one of these syrup-soaked sweets. The round ball of dough was fresh-tasting, still warm, and sweet enough to cleanse the palate.

The sweet, milky, spiced tea was the perfect end to the meal.
A little more history, a lesson in the main spices and ingredients of curries, and then we got to meet chef Wazir Ali. A group picture wrapped up the dinner and it was over.
I've had a few days to digest the experience now, and was wondering how to sum up the unique experience. Jeff Orlick explains the goal of the ambassador program on his website as this:

...a guide will order for the table and discuss what we are eating and why we are eating it. Not a classroom experience, but more of a familial gathering centered around the food. This allows us diners to let go, eat well, and expand our boundaries for the city, the world and our palates

The night, for me, reached every one of these goals. We were expertly guided by a man who obviously loves his culture, its food, and his surrounding cultures. Joseph is Indian, not Pakistani, but he is so proud of the fact that, in his experience, the boundaries between countries and religious groups that restrict lives on the subcontinent are basically nonexistent here in America. Everyone eats together. We absorbed his passion through the food that he carefully chose, with the chef, to showcase the cuisine. Our table certainly felt like a family gathering; passing around plates, divvying up the food, eating from the same dishes, laughing. My palate was expanded, I let go, and I ate well.

Kabab King Diner
73-01 37th Rd
Jackson Heights

For more information on future ambassador dinners, here is Jeff Orlick's website:


  1. That was pretty adventurous with the brains. Great writeup! Wish I had made this one.

  2. I know, it wasn't the same without you, Judy!

  3. That sounds awesome. I'm not sure about the brain though, and reading a book that talks about how mad cow was spread makes me more uneasy. Not my thing, but totally cool if someone else is in. Other than that it sounds awesome!

  4. at least it was goat brain! Not something I'll be ordering too often, but I'm glad that I tried it.

  5. is it possible to reuse the haleem photo on a website i write for? i would credit you, of course. can't find a good pic of the dish and kabab king doesn't have any photos.


  6. Hi Shandana
    If my haleem pic can be put to good use, that would be nice, so sure. Send me a link to the website.