Photo by Jeanne RiceSo right after Pakistan's government melted down again—and democracy's friend, George W. Bush, publicly speculated that a coup might bring much-needed stability to the region—I began listing what I knew of the place.
Very reactionary fundamentalist-Islamic movement. World-class field hockey. Hot-looking Benazir Bhutto (where is she now?). That Tupac/Biggie Smalls thing with India. Got the bomb.
Amidst my confusion, I began to wonder what I usually wonder about when I contemplate people in faraway places: What do they eat?
I began my investigation at Bismillah Halal Tandoori Restaurant in Buena Park.
It's hard to figure why people with so much in common—culinarily speaking—would find so much to fight about. But Bismillah, which advertises itself as a cornucopia of all things Pakistani, features a menu that will remind you of one in a Indian restaurant. All of your Indian favorites are here: vegetable samosas, chicken tikka masala, saag lamb, naan and tandoori-cooked meats. It makes you wonder if Pakistani cuisine is distinctive at all.
There is certainly nothing unusual about the place itself—in looks, it's a nondescript, strip-mall restaurant where fluorescent bulbs beat overhead, and you'll search in vain for a picture of the homeland. But the menu does include dishes of distinct Pakistani lineage. One of these is the nihari, a "particularly hot and spicy" (so says the menu) stew with boneless pieces of beef. Now, Indian cuisine also offers many stew-like dishes, such as those with masala (a tomato-and-cream-based sauce), but I've never come across one like the herb-and-spice-rich sauce in which these beefy bits swam. It was very un-Indian, hinting indeed at Persian. And the beef? Like butter. So tender I couldn't pick it up with a fork.
I really enjoyed the nihari layered over a bed of fried basmati rice (a large plate runs only $2.25), but what really blew my mouth into orbit was the karahi lamb. A karahi is basically a wok into which your Pakistani chef pours lamb chunks (they really like to cube their meat, those Pakistanis) and a dictionary's worth of herbs and spices. The product is an unbelievable medley of flavors revolving around the slightly gamy savor of the lamb. You simply must have this dish.
I'm not entirely surprised by Bismillah's large selection of items I've come to recognize as Indian. The curry and tandoori dishes hail from northern India, which shares a common geography and heritage with Pakistan. In fact, much of the cuisine of central Asia—from Iran to India—is very similar, including its most notable contribution to global cuisine, the now-omnipresent kebab.
This pancontinental cuisine has developed over centuries and knows no borders, not even the one between India and Pakistan. While these countries can't agree on anything and are willing to kill one another over a godforsaken patch of mountainous earth, perhaps they should avoid the bargaining table altogether and start negotiating at the dinner table. Last I checked, no general ever declared war with a tasty vegetable samosa plugged into his yap.
Bismillah Halal Tandoori Restaurant, located at 8901-D Knott Ave., Buena Park, is open daily, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. (714) 827-7201. Dinner for two, $20, food only. No booze. Discover, MC and Visa accepted.
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