The key to Pakistani cooking is thoroughly frying the onions. There: I’ve given the world yet another of my culinary secrets. Not “softened”, not “transparent”. None of that. In pretty much all cases, you want golden brown, beautifully fried onions. Lal-surkh, they say in Urdu: “Red-red”.

Properly fried onions in a cast iron karhai
Properly fried onions in a cast iron karhai

And onions are in almost every savory Pakistani dish. One time when I was there, somebody sold off almost all of the season’s onion crop to Dubai or Saudi Arabia or some such place.

Suddenly there was an onion shortage and the price went up 8 or 10 fold, from 2 rupees a kilo to 16 or 20, for a cheap ingredient which is integral to almost everything Pakistanis eat. As a comparison, at the time beef was 12 rupees a kilo. To alleviate the crisis, the government of Pakistan had to import onions from their nextdoor enemy, India. O, the ignominy!

Vaat Means Karhai?

(Use your Peter Sellers’ Indian accent when you read that subtitle…) Karhai, also spelled karahi or kadai, is the Urdu and Hindi word for a wok, often cast iron or steel. (The closest approximation in English to the correct pronunciation is kurd-HIGH.)  Commercial karhais in the Indian subcontinent can be huge — 3 feet in diameter.

My Pakistani mother-in-law used a small one to deep fry vegetable fritters (pakoras) for her husband’s tea every afternoon. She never changed the oil, she just added more shortening as needed. Crusted with trans fats. The American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society would have palpitations if they saw it.

You don’t need to have a wok to make this — you can make this in a large, deep skillet, if that’s what you have. A high-sided pot will probably make a mushy dish, so I wouldn’t recommend you try making it in one. A wok of some type is best.

Pakistani Karhai Chicken & Zucchini

(All amounts of spices listed below should be considered heaping. In other words, be generous when you spoon them out.)

ingredients for the Pakistani Karhai Chicken
Not shown: oil and a regular-size can of tomatoes. [click to enlarge]
Ingredients:
  • 1 good-sized onion (3″), finely chopped
  • 5T / 75ml oil
  • 1/2t turmeric
  • 1t ground cumin
  • 1t ground coriander
  • 1/2t garam masala
  • 1t chili powder
  • the best parts of a cut-up chicken, skin removed
  • 15oz / 425gm canned chopped tomatoes, or equivalent fresh, ripe
  • 1t whole coriander seeds
  • 5 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 2-4 jalapeño chilies, minced
  • 2t salt, to start with
  • 2c zucchini, striped & sliced into 1/3″ / 1cm rounds (see photo)
  • a handful of chopped cilantro
Method:
  1. Fry the onion to a rich golden brown in the oil over medium heat — refer to the image above.
  2. masala paste
    Mix the masala paste

    Meanwhile, mix the turmeric, cumin, ground coriander, garam masala and chili powder in a few tablespoons of water in a little bowl, to make a paste.

  3. When the onions are looking lal-surkh (“red-red”), add the spice paste and stir-fry for 2 minutes.

    masala paste frying with the onions
    Stir the masala paste in with the well-fried onions until fragrant
  4. Now add the chicken pieces and fry on all sides.

    Chicken pieces in wok with masala and onions
    The chicken is in.
  5. Stir in the tomatoes, cover, lower the heat and simmer for 15 minutes.

    tomatoes in with the chicken
    Tomatoes in…
  6. Now take off the cover and toss in the whole coriander seeds, garlic, minced jalapeño, and salt. Raise the heat and stir-fry until the juices are gone, the sauce thickened and the chicken is well-glazed.

    Karhai chicken with remaining spices tossed in
    Remaining spices go in now.
  7. Add the zucchini pieces towards the end of the cooking time. The zucchini only needs to be heated through, not annihilated. Turn off the heat and toss in the cilantro.

    zucchini added to karhai chicken
    Last in is the zucchini.
  8. Check and adjust the salt and chili heat to your taste. Serve with rice or roti, raita of some sort, and an onion-cucumber relish kind of salad.

The zucchini is not traditional, but it goes well and looks pretty when it is striped with a peeler and colored with the turmeric. The sauce in this dish is so good, you will be grateful for the additional vehicle (I mean the zucchini) to transport it to your mouth. Sugar peapods might work, too, if they are in season.

Sometimes I make it with a cut-up chicken, sometimes I make it with 6 or 8 chicken thighs or drumsticks. For me, it’s all about what’s on sale.

Jalapeños aren’t what they used to be. Used to be, they were seriously hot. But now sometimes they are disappointingly meek, so adjust the amount of the chilies you have to their strength and your tastes. Don’t be shy though.

Pakistani karhai chicken & zucchini on rice serving suggestion

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