I am on a bun kebab hunt, partly out of spite for the unabated ‘gourmet burger’ trend in the city. We are rapidly reaching that monotonous state of affairs where we will have nowhere to go but between the two homogenous halves of a bun. But if burgers are on their way to becoming our national dish, then let’s wrap our hands around the better burger out there – the Pakistani bun kebab.
Bun kebabs are the quintessential roadside burgers of Karachi. The concept is far from new in Pakistan; there are vendors who have been sliding bun kebabs off their tawas for the last fifty years, at least. But over the past five years, an increasing number of Pakistani eateries on the streets of Ghusais, Oud Metha and Karama are offering this street speciality.
Some of these restaurants like Gulabo, Desi Adda and Truck Adda follow a young, trendy template: pigeon-hole dining area, bright splashes of Pakistani truck art, Bollywood posters and cheeky sayings. Their menus are minimal in comparison to the round-the-world trips we often endure at our local Indian-Chinese-Pinoy-Pizza restaurants that also serve hummus.
The basic anatomy of this Pakistani-style burger is a spicy patty as soft as paste, sandwiched into a bun whose mouth has been well-greased, seared and painted with chutney. It might seem very similar to a Western-style burger, but the reality is that Pakistani bun kababs are to American burgers what middle-aged quiz nights are to college pool parties. They’re a more low-key, restrained and digestible experience.
The Pakistani patty is essentially a tender shami kebab with a thin crunchy lace of caramelized crust. It often doesn’t start out as minced meat, but as a smooth mash of chicken or beef boiled with chickpea lentils and masalas. The lentils not only add a dimension of earthiness to the patty, but also give it a pâté-like texture that you could spread over toast. Especially with the beef version, the lentils moderate the acidity of the bun kebab – a welcome relief for my over 12,000 day-old digestive tract which can no longer process the bricks of beef it finds in picture-perfect American-style burgers. At least not without serving time the next day.
In fact, for those who’ve sworn off meat completely, most bun kebab haunts provide a meatless potato or lentil patty option.
A bun kebab is also discreet with condiments, even though the trend of the day is to suffocate burgers with an avalanche of sauce. Indeed, sauce-dripping buns do make for more ‘likeable’ Instagram photos, even if they leave the diner wondering which animal or plant the patty came from. In contrast, bun kebabs sport a slight smear of coriander-yogurt chutney, a swirl of ketchup, or a pat of red chilli and garlic. Of course, not all bun kebabs are perfect. There are offenders in Satwa and International City that pump out mayonnaise, overpowering sesame chutney or shredded cabbage as condiments – but for the most part, places like Gulabo, Desi Adda and Spinzers get it right.
You might have the option of having a frilly omelette and melted cheese inserted into your bun kebab. The omelette is a bonus, the cheese might be overkill. If you watch the masters at work in Karachi, they shallow fry their patty in a robe of whipped egg. This is no standalone omelette, mind you. It is not snuck in as an independent layer the way we see in most bun kebabs of Dubai. The original roadside bun kebab veterans of Karachi will beat whole eggs until they lather up like meringue, dip the patty into the frothy mixture and glide it over a cast iron tawa. As this fluffy cloud hits the oil, the eggy foam starts frilling and wrapping itself around the patty like a pale yellow chiffon scarf.
I have never had the privilege of visiting Pakistan. Instead, I torment myself with online videos of revered bun kebab vendors on the streets of Karachi. The white-bearded Merlin of bun kebabs, Babu Bhai, has been sliding his buns and kebabs off his tawa for queues of hungry patrons on Burns Road since the late ’60s. Most of the charm in the experience is watching him in action on the roadside, his hands moving like clockwork as he slices open two conjoined buns, thrusts them towards the oil, dabs on the chutney, tucks in raw onions, slots in the patty and then compresses his creation with his fingers before it gets pulled off the tawa and wrapped in newspaper.
Even without the thrill of a street-side performance, Dubai has a few places that manage to stack up a worthy bun kebab under twenty dirhams. Spinzers in Oud Metha and Barsha came highly recommended, and rightly so. Fifteen dirhams won me not one, but two slider-sized tufts of cottony pav, the Portugese-inspired desi buns that are closer to brioche than regular hamburger buns.
The seasoning is on point: crushed black pepper, lip-smacking ‘chaat masala’ and a pat of red chilli and garlic chutney like rouge on the lower half of the pav. Desi Adda in Ghusais also whips up a commendable bun kebab. Their only misfortune is that they serve chicken behari kebabs as soft as kittens – and by the time you’re done playing with them (the kebabs, not kittens), the forgotten bun kebab becomes an afterthought.
Old Dubai already has its bun kebab fix. But my hope is for a young and ambitious Karachi kid to navigate the regulations around an open-air tawa and figure out how to pelt out bun kebabs, the old school way, right by the gourmet burgers on the South side of town. No bells, whistles and sauce drowning for Dubai, just exactly the way it’s done in Pakistan – simple, minimal, fast and cheap. And go easy on the chutney please.