In minced meat we trust.

By Khushbu Shah
September 03, 2020
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Credit: @bkjani

There is a common misconception that South Asians — and Indians, in particular — come from a predominantly vegetarian culture. This is not only unequivocally false — over 70 percent of the population eats meat — but to buy into this myth would be to overlook not only one of the world’s greatest barbecue traditions, but also one of the world’s greatest barbecue dishes: the seekh kebab.  

Like other revered barbecue dishes — brisket, ribs, pork shoulder — seekh kebabs are ultimately very simple in construction. It is essentially a South Asian sausage without a casing. Finely minced meat is massaged with grated onion, fresh cilantro, and fistfuls of spices like turmeric and Kashmiri chili powder, and the mixture is pressed around a wide and flat sword-like skewer, known as a “seekh.” The meat is grilled over flames until it renders its fat and forms a tube that is crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. 

“If it’s done correctly there will be a nice sear, smoky flavor, and it should arrive to you dripping its own fat,” says Sibte Hassan, the owner of Pakistani restaurant BK Jani in Brooklyn, New York. 

Where you purchase your kebab dictates how it will be served. At Hassan’s favorite street stalls in his hometown of Lahore, the kebabs are nuzzled into blankets of fresh naan and raita. At Karim’s in New Delhi, a legendary institution that’s been serving seekh kebab since 1911, the meat is plated up with zero frills and accouterments. And in Brooklyn, Hassan serves seekh kebab rolls made with flaky paratha and plenty of mint chutney at his restaurant. Farhan Momin, a chef (and dentist!) whose family owns Atlanta Halal Meat & Food in Suwanee, Georgia, likes to serve seekh kebabs in hot dog buns, one side painted with tamarind chutney, the other side painted with cilantro chutney, and a shower of diced onion over the top. 

The origins of the seekh kebab, like many foods, is a bit murky. The arrival of kebabs into the South Asian canon of cuisine is widely attributed to the Mughal emperors who invaded India starting in the 1500s and brought with them a penchant for tender meat grilled on skewers, amongst other things. These kebabs were fused with Indian spices, and from there, seekh kebabs became a beloved and affordable street food across both what is now Pakistan, parts of India, and their global diasporas. 

Perhaps the biggest divide when it comes to seekh kebabs is the debate over which meat — lamb, goat, mutton, beef, or chicken — is best to use. Hassan is adamant that beef makes the best seekh kebabs. 

“It’s the only meat I’ll use,” he says. Lamb can taste way too gamey and requires too many spices to cover up that flavor.” Momin also likes to use ground beef, especially at home, but that his personal favorite is a chicken seekh kebab because of the way it holds together. “It’s also our best selling item at the restaurant,” he reveals. 

It’s also impossible to discuss meat choices for seekh kebabs without bringing up the political implications of those decisions. Beef is a standard option in Pakistan, a Muslim majority country where there are no taboos surrounding beef consumption. Hindu diners in India, on the other hand, largely turn to chicken or lamb options due to their religious beliefs. Taken at face value, these divisions surrounding protein choice are simple, but the reality is much more complicated given that beef consumption has long been used by the upper caste Hindu ruling class to oppress Muslims and members of marginalized castes. 

Momin, whose family is from India, has found that in the diaspora, the seekh kebab is a cornerstone of what he calls the “desi barbecue holy trinity,” which consists of seekh kebabs, chicken tikka, and tandoori chicken. Momin says you could find this trinity at every one of his family gatherings, and even on road trips. “I remember me and my extended family took a trip to Florida growing up, and on the way back to Georgia, we pulled over our three van group to a rest stop, pulled out the charcoal, and has a desi BBQ right there.” 

Momin says that the reason seekh kebabs are so beloved is because they are not only flavorful, but also “really forgiving” to make. He hopes the kebabs become more mainstream in America. “You really can’t beat it,” he says. “It’s one of the most perfect barbecue items you can get.” Momin adds, “It’s like pizza. Even a bad seekh kebab is ultimately pretty good.” 

Momin suggests that people making seekh kebab for the first time use dehydrated onions in the mixture, which helps impart the onion flavor without adding moisture — which is key for getting the meat to stick to the skewers. He is also working on a vegetarian version to sell at the restaurant. Momin and his father have experimented using Impossible burger, though legendary Indian cookbook author Tarla Dalal insists in her book Moghlai Khana that great meatless versions can be made from either grated corn or yellow moong daal, using potato to bind it all together. 

Regardless of how you decide to make it, the important thing is that there are seekh kebabs in your life.“There are few things that are more delicious,” says Hassan. “I have at least one seekh kebab a day.”