Mt. Lebanon Magazine’s new series, “Community Cookbook,” takes a closer look into the kitchens, recipes and traditions of Mt. Lebanon residents.
The series will highlight different food traditions our community celebrates, from kebabs to Tiramisu to potato salad. What better way to learn about your neighbor than through the kitchen? This series will share family recipes while focusing on the nostalgia, meaning and memories behind the dish.
Rabia Khan of Oxford Boulevard still remembers playing with her cousins at age 6 as the smell of mustard oil and barbeque permeated the air.
She recalls the sari effortlessly draped across her grandmother’s torso as her wrinkled hands ground spices—garam masala, nutmeg, mace, star anise and dried red chilies—on a stone slab in Karachi, Pakistan.
When the family gathered for a special event on hot summer days, everyone knew what dish to expect: Bihari Kebab.
“It was always a special occasion when it was prepared,” she said. “Those are the earliest memories I have.”
Khan’s mother, Farhat, was caught up in the Indian Partition of 1947, a British decolonization policy. Farhat’s family was forced to leave the Bihar Province of India and immigrate to Pakistan.
“They faced very hard times,” Khan said. “My mother said she remembers a time when her younger brother would cry for hours because they wouldn’t have enough money to afford formula or milk for them.”
In the midst of a difficult first few years, one thing remained constant: the kebab recipe.
“They handed down that recipe to my mom who gave it to me,” she said.
While Bihari Kebab has many variations—sometimes Khan uses store-bought spices and chunks of beef in a pinch—everyone in Karachi knows Khan’s mother’s version is authentic.
“Even today, her Bihari kebabs are famous in our social circle,” Khan said.
The arduous task of preparing this dish can take up to four hours, plus an overnight marination.
As a result, the dish is usually saved for special guests. The last time Khan remembers making the dish for anyone other than her immediate family was when her mother visited from Pakistan. Her mom was “head chef” and the two prepared the meal for Khan’s visiting uncle and aunt.
“I make it for my immediate family, but only whenever they ask me for it,” she said. “Which is not that often, because they know it takes a lot of work.”
Khan altered her family’s recipe upon moving to the U.S. in 2000.
Papaya flowers are traditionally ground into a paste and used as a meat tenderizer, but Khan uses store-bought tenderizer instead.
As opposed to her grandmother and mother who used a stone slab to grind all the spices, Khan uses her coffee grinder.
One other major change Khan made was finding a substitute for mustard oil. When she first moved to the area there weren’t many ethnic food stores, and she couldn’t find the specialty oil.
“I used olive oil, which changed the taste a little bit,” she said.
Despite the adaptations she’s made to the recipe, the dish still conjures up memories of childhood in Pakistan.
“I have a very faint memory of us as a family going on a beach trip,” she said. “My mother would make Bihari Kebab because it was one of my dad’s favorites.”
Her dad passed away when she was 6, but preparing the dish reminds her of her parents. When preparing the meal and spreading the marinated meat on the skewers just as her mother and aunts did, she is transported to her childhood.
“The salty air and the sand, the sunset and all of us together,” she said. “Those are the kinds of memories that come back.”
At left, you can find Khan’s family recipe for Bihari Kebab, translated from her mother’s hand-written copy in Urdu.
Disclaimer: Khan uses rough estimates while cooking and often prepares the dish from muscle memory. The recipe may take some practice and extra effort, but the result is worth it.
The recipe is for 5 kg of meat because it’s something that you always share with others and is not really an everyday food.
Whether your family has been here for generations, or you just moved to Lebo this month, we’d love to hear from you. Send your stories to email@example.com.