The bustling food streets of Old Lahore are the gastronomic heart of Pakistan. Locals and tourists stroll from stall to stall, delighting in the joys of taka tak (minced spiced offal sizzled in butter), icy metal cups of buttermilk lassi, deep-fried river fish, nankhatai (ghee shortbread cookies), and more. But to my old friend Shayma Saadat, the internationally published Pakistani-Afghan author of the blog Spice Spoon, the main attraction of these inner-city areas, aside from their “beautiful Mughal architecture and mosques,” is the fresh and fiery chicken karahi, named for the deep, curved vessel with ring-shaped handles it is cooked in. At outdoor tables “they will bring you chicken karahi—in the karahi—and then they bring warm naan from the tandoor,” she said when we recently caught up on a video call.
Eating the dish is an invigorating, multisensory experience. Start by inhaling the tangy-sweet aromas of spices and fresh tomato. Then, brace yourself as your palate is bathed in the warm, building heat of dried chiles and black pepper; the pointed sting of fresh green chiles; and the sweet-hot duality of cooked and raw ginger. Finally, experience the cooling, herbal reprieve of cilantro leaves.
Sign up for the Cook's Insider newsletter
The latest recipes, tips, and tricks, plus behind-the-scenes stories from the Cook's Illustrated team.
A Karahi for Every Kitchen
A Pakistani street vendor serves up a fragrant stew from a karahi. The dish is named for the cavernous cast-iron or steel vessel in which the food is cooked. Originally created for communal village meals, the pots, which are alternately known as kadai or korai, feature looped handles and flat or rounded bases. Their tall, steep sides make them ideal for many types of cooking techniques, including stir-frying, deep-frying, and simmering. Karahis are produced in a variety of smaller sizes and materials for home kitchens too.
For a dish with such complexity, you’d never guess that it comes together so easily. Chicken is skinned and hacked into pieces with the bone still in (sometimes called “karahi cut”). “It just has to have the bone,” said Saadat. If you use boneless chicken, “it’s just not karahi anymore.” The poultry is seared in a generous amount of oil and/or butter with freshly grated ginger, minced garlic, and a sweet-hot masala. (In other parts of the Indian subcontinent where the dish is also very popular, onions and/or bell pepper are included as well.) Chopped fresh tomatoes, chiles, and cilantro join the mix, which simmers until the chicken is tender and the fat separates from the liquid and pools on the surface—a commonly used indicator of doneness. A flurry of cilantro and a veritable haystack of julienned raw ginger finish the dish, which should be served with plenty of warm naan or chapati for grasping pieces of chicken and mopping up the lively sauce.
Halving Bone-In Chicken Thighs
1. Position heavy-bladed chef’s knife at middle of thigh, perpendicular to bone. Slice through meat so bone is exposed.
2. Hold knife steady with base of blade resting on top of bone and use your nondominant hand to strike down on spine of knife to split thigh into 2 pieces.
A Home Bird
Chicken karahi isn’t just an incredibly well‑liked street food. It’s also a beloved home-cooked meal for many Pakistani cooks, such as Fatima Nasim, a London-based food writer and author of the blog Fatima Cooks. “It holds huge emotional significance for me,” said Nasim, a self-described “karahi purist,” when I reached out to chat about the dish.
For my own family-style recipe, I chose to cook in a Dutch oven, an oft‑used stand-in for a karahi (a wok works brilliantly too). I settled on leg quarters that I split at the joint and skinned. Nasim agreed that the rich dark meat would be “wonderful” with the gutsy seasonings. Left whole, the drumsticks were just the right size for eating out of hand; I transformed the thighs into “karahi cut” by halving them through the bone with a heavy knife.
Most karahi recipes don’t specify a variety of tomato, but I found that plum tomatoes, with their dense, meaty flesh, cooked down to a properly concentrated (Nasim called it “dry”) consistency. Opinions also differ on whether to use oil, butter, ghee, or a combination to sear the chicken, but I preferred equal parts oil and butter, which enriched the sauce with velvety creaminess without adding a strong buttery taste.
Science: The Sensational Heat of Karahi
Our karahi draws its heat from capsaicin-laden serranos, red pepper flakes, and Kashmiri chile powder. Although they’re all hot, the sensation of eating each chile is quite different. A serrano (about 10,000 Scoville Heat Units, or SHU), for example, immediately stings your lips and mouth with a prickly heat, whereas Kashmiri chile powder (roughly 60,000 SHU) delivers a steady burn that can linger on your tongue and throat for minutes. Red pepper flakes deliver a sharp, mouth-filling heat. The Scoville scale doesn’t capture these facets, which is why Paul Bosland, formerly of New Mexico State University’s Chile Pepper Institute, developed a “heat profile” to characterize chiles on five separate criteria.
5 Facets of Chile Heat
- Scoville Rating: measure of fieriness based on capsaicinoid concentration
- Development: ow soon does the heat start? Is it rapid? Delayed by several seconds?
- Duration: ow long does the heat last?
- Location: here does it hurt? On the lips, on the tip of the tongue, or in the throat?
- Feeling: hat is the sensation like? Sharp like a needle or flat and steady like touching a hot surface?
Why is chile heat so varied? Capsaicin is the primary compound responsible for the burn of chiles, and until the 1960s it was believed to be the only one. But in fact, chiles produce quite a few different compounds that are chemically similar to capsaicin: the capsaicinoids, such as homocapsaicin, dihydrocapsaicin, and nordihydrocapsaicin. These capsaicinoids stimulate our receptors in subtly different ways, evoking different sorts of heat sensations. Since different chile cultivars contain varying amounts of these compounds, they each burn differently.
A Real Scorcher
With the chicken, tomatoes, and fat settled, I homed in on the spices, chiles, and ginger that deliver karahi’s signature feistiness. Cumin and coriander gave the dish a savory, citrusy base that was nicely highlighted by sweet cinnamon and cardamom. Lots of ground black pepper, Kashmiri chile powder, and red pepper flakes provided a deep, foundational warmth that set the stage for the more immediate heat of serranos and raw ginger.
Speaking of ginger, incorporating the root both cooked and raw produces a wonderful effect. The portion of ginger that is sautéed and simmered gives the dish a gentle fruitiness, whereas the raw ginger matchsticks added as a garnish lighten things up with an energetic, peppery sweetness.
I presented a final batch to my colleagues, stepping back and smiling as they enthusiastically tore off portions of naan to grip hearty bites of the flavor-packed chicken. Reading the satisfied looks on their faces, I knew that they weren’t just enjoying the flavors of the karahi but also the feelings that came along with it.