The chefs at Peshawar’s Namak Mandi are extremely sensitive to developments in the international security paradigm and regional geopolitics—their famous mutton tikka karhai is at stake.
The recipe that they use for the dry curry has been oft copied yet seldom replicated. There are two secrets to its unique taste. One, you have to choose the right breed of sheep from the mountains. “The Balkhi and local wattani sheep have more meat and are best for taste,” says the owner of the well-known Charsi Tikka establishment, Nisar.
And the second secret is the method. “The mutton is cooked in its own fat and only a pinch of salt is added,” says cook Sher Zaman. He warns that those who cook it in oil or banaspati ghee will never get the same results. In fact, if you go to Namak Mandi you’ll never be able to dine in an air-conditioned room. They serve it at room temperature because the lamb fat congeals otherwise.
The key ingredient is thus so precious that Namak Mandi establishments have to ensure they buy exactly the right animal. When Chinese mutton surfaced in the market, for example, customers rejected it. “Our tikka works only with wattani mutton,” Nisar explains.
This is why the bazaar always wants to ensure a steady supply from Afghanistan where these animals come from. Livestock trader Abdullah says that the market’s stability depends on the normalcy in Pak-Afghan ties and terrorist attacks.
Demand is high. People spend an estimated Rs50 million a month on tikka karhai. It is said that 45 maun (or 1,800kg) of mutton is sold every month in Namak Mandi alone.
The karhai’s fortunes are also linked to domestic conditions. As with other parts of KP, terrorist attacks dented tourism in Peshawar too. It was the same with Namak Mandi. “Most of my customers were from Punjab and other parts of the country but after 9/11 our business slid,” says Nisar.
The head cook of a mutton shop, Lala Azam, recalls how pre-9/11 they needed up to 40 lambs a day. “Foreigners used to visit Namak Mandi every day in large numbers,” he says. But as militancy grew people were too scared to eat out and demand fell.
Also, when the tribal districts that border Afghanistan were part of Fata, the movement of cattle was heavily regulated. Fata merged with KP in June and the regulations ended. This meant that people from these districts brought more cattle which could be smuggled into Afghanistan.
The interim government had banned the movement of cattle from one district to another. The new government lifted the ban creating confusion and disruptions in prices and supplies.
Mutton tikka karhai is a Shinwari delicacy reserved for special occasions and for guests, in the hills of Landi Kotal as well as Afghanistan where the tribe comes from. During the British Raj it reached Peshawar thanks to the Shinwari camel drivers and caravans.
During the British Raj, Namak Mandi inside the walled city was a salt market. In those days, salt was worth its weight in silver and not everyone could afford it. When salt lost its value as a precious commodity, Namak Mandi emerged as a hub of restaurants dealing only in mutton tikka karhai. During the Afghan war, the same Namak Mandi market became the largest supplier of raw precious and semi-precious stones.
Charsi Tikka was the first proper shop that opened sixty years ago. (Before this you’d only have roadside stalls where the Shinwari men would cook.) No. Its owner is not a charsi—that is just an urban legend. And no, they don’t put chars in the tikka. It’s just a clever marketing ploy to draw in customers. The idea is that you feel “doped” after you eat the tikka because it is that good.
‘Charsi Tikka’ is the gold standard and tends to attract curious diners from Lahore. Locals are less impressed. As the mutton tikka karhai has grown popular there are many other places around the city that will offer the same dish. Mutton is made in three ways: simple barbecue, dam pukht and karhai. But Namak Mandi is still considered the best place to go. During Eidul Azha people bring their sacrificial mutton and have it made at Namak Mandi for parties at home.
In the early 1990s, mutton karhai cost just Rs120 per kilo but this has gone up to Rs1,150 today. A seventy-year-old man mused that when he was young you just needed five rupees at Namak Mandi.
Namak Mandi in Peshawar was just turned into a food street with a cleaner look and better seating this August. Vendor Abul Raheem, 50, was one of the people who was happy to see the government pay attention to this ancient bazaar. He and others danced to the rabab music during the inauguration ceremony. Students like Sajjad Khan who came to eat there said they were happy they now had more places to hang out. His parents didn’t let him socialize too late in the inner city earlier on. “Now the situation is back to normal so I am here with my friends till 2am,” he said.
Namak Mandi is not just known for the karhai. The menus have expanded. If you happen to be vegetarian, you can order something as simple as pakoras. Fish and chips and burger joints have also sprung up. You can’t buy mutton on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, so people offer chicken karhai and Sajji then. But of course, nothing beats the mutton tikka karhai.