The aroma curls you in, as you navigate a rather sandy path in an attempt to keep your shoes from becoming dust buckets. We, Social Media Deputy Editor Sanya Nayeem and I, were on a mission.
Two generations of a Pakistani family run a kabab shop tucked away in the side of a building. We were determined to find it.
After about five minutes of walking in circles, we sighted it! Al Ashiyah Cafeteria, in the Bu Tina area of Sharjah.
We were greeted with a toothy grin through the check-out window by Hafeez Al Rahman, the 31-year-old holding fort at the two decades’ old family restaurant.
“I was born in Sharjah, I’ve lived all my life here... but my father, Mohammad Luqman, came from Kohat, a district of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan, in 1974. He had come to work in a butchery, the meat industry, but his roots and heart were in the food business.
I once had an Indian cook from a royal household come in search of this kabab shop, with an important guest.
“He saw that other Pathans working here, like him, craved good kababs, but these were quite expensive and people were struggling. He wanted every musafir [traveller] to have a good meal. And chappli kababs are very popular in the Pathan community. So, he re-created the recipe he had learned back home and started selling it for Dh3 in 1997.”
A diner would get fresh roti or unleavened bread, salad and a kabab for the princely sum, which was affordable to one and all. Today, taking into account inflation, it is priced at Dh5.
Each kabab is literally the length and breadth of a size 8 sole, made with freshly ground beef kneaded with ground spices, minced herbs and a dash of culinary magic. The result is a patty that is crispy brown at the edges, golden at its dimpled centre and juicy inside.
“We start selling by 12noon and by the Grace of God, business is brisk. The reason it is called chappli is because it is made chapta [flattened].”
The patty is slapped onto a specially made pan created from the girders of a ship in the Sharjah Industrial Area, with a pool of simmering oil waiting at one end. Once it is flattened and a dimple placed in the centre to ensure even cooking, it is slid into the oil, where it simmers till it turns golden and “shining”, ready to be plated. Beef is the preferred meat, as it lends itself to the balance of spices, and is minced daily at the restaurant.
“Work begins after Fajr prayers... the beef is minced, onions chopped, herbs minced and spices pounded,” Hafeez explained. Usually the afternoons are supervised by his uncle and the evenings by his elder brother, both of who are away on holiday.
The cafeteria serves a spicy, non-spicy and egg-mixed version of the kabab, and has been a popular haunt for over 20 years. Why has it never moved or expanded?
“We are a family of six brothers and five sisters. All our sisters had to be married off and my father passed away, so times were hard. I learned the business from my older brother and father’s younger brother. Now we are doing better and plan to open a branch in Ajman soon.”
The near iconic status of the eatery draws people from across cultures, emirates and nationalities every day.
“I once had an Indian cook from a royal household, who had come in search of this famous kabab shop, along with an important guest. I didn’t know where he worked but when he mentioned that he was from India, I hosted him and refused to take money. We are from Peshawar and our mehmaan nawazi [welcoming of guests] is legendary, and we greatly welcome the people of India, they are our neighbours.
“He was very happy with the kabab and our hospitality, and even featured us in a book.”
As he talked, Hafeez kept dishing out fresh kababs with the help of his long-time assistant Mohammad Kabir from Bangladesh, who has spent 14 years working in the cafeteria. In a span of 30 minutes, businessmen, delivery people, taxi drivers, youngsters... all came knocking. All hungry for a musafir’s meal.
Flat and delicious: The chappli legend
Chappli kabab traces its origin to the city of Peshawar in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, located in the northern part of modern-day Pakistan. Some sources say it evolved from Mughal cuisine that focused on minced meats and ground spices for kebabs. Others mention Turkish and Central Asian influences.
Perhaps they all have a role to play, but the chappli or flattened kabab that is consumed today is primarily a Peshawari creation. The word chappli is derived from the Pashto word “chaprikh” , which means flat. For some reason, a lot of people also associate it with the word “chappal” or slipper because it is the shape and size of a sole.
The meat used can be beef or lamb, but beef with a good amount of fat marbling is preferred. It is served hot with either flat bread or a pulao (rice cooked with herbs and nuts), along with salad. A perfect, hearty rustic meal.