Two years ago, a friend served homemade burgers that stole the show at his birthday party. This was the tiger of burger patties, roaring with flavour in a city crowded with burger joints purring for attention. I interrogated him for the secret recipe until he relented: ‘I outsourced the patties from the chapli kabab place you once blogged about!’
You know when someone pulls out your trump card and plays it far better than you ever had? This was that moment. And it was unbearably delicious. Each bun encased a dark-crusted disc of minced beef, folded over itself, thinner than a cottony naan, slightly wider than the palm of the Pakistani uncle who had seared it in Sharjah. Threaded with flecks of herby green and coriander seeds, these patties proudly upheld the holy trinity of meaty flavour – subtle heat, impeccable seasoning and beefy juices. For Dh4 a kabab, the birthday boy had wiped the buns off most pricy burgers in the city.
Your timing has to be right if you plan to beef up your next house party with chapli kabab burgers from Al Ashiyah Cafeteria. Remember that you can never just ‘swing by Sharjah;’ you have to hurl yourself through an intergalactic passage of cosmically outrageous traffic. Even if you do miraculously arrive early, the cafeteria will be closed until Maghrib prayer time. You have only two options: bag your beefy stash during Al Ashiyah’s lunch shift, or as did my ingenious friend, call in advance to plead that the precious patties be handed over before the cafeteria officially opens. If your guests can’t handle heat, ask them to dial down the spice.
I wouldn’t bother investing in fancy condiments. The recipe for this patty has been perfected through generations of kabab artisans in Kohat, Pakistan. Real friends will savour it in its sacred solitude; the rest can bring their own blue cheese and truffle oil.
Hafeez Ur Rehman, the son of the late owner, who opened Ashiyah’s kabab kitchen in Sharjah twenty years ago, generously divulges the recipe. He knows full well that the process involves a level of unmeasured proportions, precision and patience that is easier consumed than copied.
The beef is ground twice in-house using ‘raan’, or the chuck, brisket and round cuts above the shanks. Hafeez insists on kneading the mince meticulously before leaving it in the fridge for five hours before marination and another three hours after. By this point, the best of us will have caved in and pulled up Deliveroo.
A souk of ingredients is rubbed through the mince: Onions, tomatoes, coriander seeds, dried pomegranate seeds, cumin, red chilli powder, green chillies, fresh coriander and mint, Chinese lemon salt and wheat flour for binding. Once the meat is awoken from its seasoned sleep, it is set beside a ripping hot, slanted griddle fashioned from the sturdy iron of ships. Ashiya’s iron ‘kadai’ has accumulated its seasoning with hundreds of kababs each day over twenty tireless years. You might steal the recipe, but that grill is a grandmother whose magic goes to the grave.
Hafeez’s uncle is Roald Dahl’s Big Friendly Giant, grand and endearing, old but keenly alert, mesmerizing as he scoops up a chubby ball of peanut-coloured mince to commence the culinary tango. He swipes it through the oil and then smashes it flat like the sole of a ‘chappal’ or slipper; hence the Urdu name ‘chapli kabab.’ Poking a hole through the centre of the patty, he sends the kabab gliding across the kadai like an air hockey puck. The kabab shimmies violently as it hits the oily puddle, its edges shrieking and curling against the heat until they silence into a submissive char. The kabab is not burnt; it has a calculated chocolate-brown crust that conceals soft, dewy mince within. A flip and four minutes later, the kabab bows off the oil and gets dusted with a biting blend of mango powder, garam masala, fenugreek and cumin.
Cafeteria is an overstatement; Ashiyah is no more than a cleft in the face of the building. In a city where we attach a serious premium to burgers served through windows of stationary trucks, this feels like a bargain-priced Utopia. I have eaten their kababs on the pavement, on one of two communal tables in the adjacent room and on the steps of the parent building. I have also torn away chunks at the window itself, because far from exhibiting the patience needed to re-engineer the kabab, I lack the smidgen of self-control needed while Hafeez plates it up. That said, it is worth waiting those few seconds to have the customary lemon wedge, green chutney and fresh one-dirham roti. Why, you ask, when you will be snuggling them into buns an hour later for your party? Because if you drive back to Dubai with these kababs riding shotgun, you are guaranteed to rip through the foil and mangle them all in a heinous highway heist. Do not attempt the return journey on an empty stomach.
You could – if you wanted to splurge an extra dirham per kabab – order the version with fried eggs folded into the patty. Hafeez laughs that the fluffiness of the eggs simulates a coveted ‘magaz’-filled chapli kabab made in Pakistan, a version they do not make here because residents are not physically active enough to burn it off. Magaz in Urdu translates to brains.
The next time you get inspired to spend forty dirhams on a burger, or more ambitiously, to flip burgers on your home grill, play your cards right. There’s a Dh4 patty past the National Paints roundabout that is worthy of any bun: sesame-topped, brioche, carb-free lettuce. Ditch the grill and drive to Sharjah.
Locate the cafeteria on Google maps by entering Al Ashiyah Peshawari Chappal Kebab.