On Saturday, my friend and I concluded our long adventurous journey around Riverside County with a meal at Al-Karam, a few months old Pakistani restaurant in Riverside. I justified the amount I ordered as a belated Eid Al-Fitr treat with my friend, whom I had last seen in the middle of Ramadan. All together, our meal consisting of three dishes came out to $76, but I can proudly say it was worth every dollar and cent!
The family who owns the restaurant hails from Jhelum in the Pakistani province of Punjab. That alone is an indicator for excellent food, which is proven by many of the best Indian restaurants being owned by Punjabi Sikhs. Since the Partition of 1947, the region of Punjab has been divided between Northern India and Pakistan. Punjab is a highly diverse province consisting of large numbers of Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims, the latter mostly residing in Pakistan. But the one thing they all share is that they cook delicious food. Punjab, means “land of five rivers,” and consists of very fertile lands, hence resulting in an agriculture based economy, producing excellent food in the process.
The three main dishes we ordered were haleem, chicken biryani, and a mixed tandoori platter, all of which were delicious! Haleem is a stew consisting of lentils and shredded meat (chicken, lamb, or beef) which is very popular in Pakistan and among Indian Muslims. Its origins are traced to the Middle East where it was known as harees. During the Mughal Period, it spread to the Indian Subcontinent where many Muslims adopted it as part of their local cuisine.
Preparing haleem is a cumbersome process taking up to six hours. Wheat, barley and lentil are soaked overnight, while a separate meat gravy is prepared. Once everything is ready, all the ingredients are blended together into one thick paste, and served with fried onions sprinkled on the top. Fortunately Al-Karam did not put a lot of oil in their haleem, and it was hands down the best I have ever had! With every bite, I could feel the rich, flavored taste melting in my mouth.
The Tandoori Mix Platter was also excellent. Muslim cultures are known for their tasty meat dishes, which made it difficult for me just to select one individual dish. Thus, I decided to try different kinds of meat in the platter, which consisted of Tandoori Chicken, Chicken Boti, and chicken and beef seekh kabob. All of these dishes, including naans, are cooked in a tandoor oven, a large, cylindrical clay cooking pot with fire in the bottom. Although all of the meat was extremely flavorful, my favorite was the beef seekh kabob. Living with my mother who is Hindu, and my efforts to be health conscious do not allow me to frequently eat beef. Thus, I only eat it as a treat when I go out to a good halal restaurant. Thinking of beef kabob as a “treat,” always makes it all the more memorable if it is really good, just like it was at Al-Karam.
Lastly, our Chicken Biryani was also amazing. Biryani is a mixed dish consisting of rice, any choice of meat and spices. Similar to many other South Asian Muslim dishes, biryani’s origins lie in Western Asia, and became a popular delicacy in India under Mughal/Turkic rule. Through the years, Indian cities with sizable Muslim concentrations created their own variation of the dish. Today, it has become one of the most popular dishes in India and Pakistan. Many Middle Eastern nations also have a mixed rice and meat dish, such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States which eat Kabsa and Mandi. However, none of them are as flavorful and appetizing as South Asian biryani! You can even ask the Saudi’s themselves, who just love biryani!
Even before we began eating, my friend who’s family lives in India looked at the way it was cooked and told me, “this is the way biryani should be cooked, one side a bit browner than the other, just like in India. Most restaurants don’t cook it that way.” A Muslim is definitely the best judge of biryani as throughout South Asia it is one of their staple, most popular delicacies. On that positive note, I excitedly began munching away on the biryani, and my friend’s prediction was completely correct! Both the chicken and the rice were filled with delicious spices, are were a perfect addition to haleem and the tandoori mix.
This was the best Eid dinner I could have imagined, great company, and delicious food! Unlike other South Asian restaurants which put a lot of oil in their food, Al-Karam’s mission as described on their business card is to serve “traditional, fresh and healthy Punjabi clay oven cooking.” So regardless if you are a health freak, looking for some authentic Pakistani food or whatever else, hit the road and get your grub on at Riverside’s Al-Karam!