Friday, June 15, 2012

AIA Community Fair - Middle Eastern Food

About this time every summer, our good friends down the street at the American Islamic Association (AIA) hold an open house. The mosque is less than a 5-minute drive from the Commissary and I've had the opportunity to meet several AIA members through an interfaith church group that I volunteer for, so we try to stop by to see what's going on. There are always a lot of activities for kids (bounce house, pony rides, etc.) at the fair; unfortunately, Hackknife Jr. woke up sick on the morning of the event, so the family decided to stay home while I made a brief appearance. Of great allure for a foodie like me is the diverse Middle Eastern cuisine that's available to the fair attendees, some of which is homemade by non-restauranteurs. I promised Mrs. Hackknife that I'd only be gone an hour, so I needed to make some quick dining decisions.

First up was a quiet tent in the back corner of the field with two women and a young man who were dressed in clothing that one might normally associate with India. Their table sported a handmade sign advertising "chat patti haleem", which one of them described to me as beef slow cooked with beans and spices, then pureed, resulting in a zingy, chili-like concoction (she assured me that theirs was a traditional family recipe - of course, they probably all say that). There was a little bowl of additional spice blend on the table for brave souls, but I found it to be plenty spicy on its own, although not so much that I couldn't eat it. I showed my find to one of my interfaith compadres, who told me that it's a Pakistani dish that he tends to avoid since it's a bit too spicy for his liking. Curious after I returned home, I had a tough time tracking down the roster of ingredients online. I did find a single recipe for chat patti haleem in a somewhat-nondescript recipe book - it's half-written in a unrecognizable foreign tongue (Punjabi?), but it lists beef, onions, a couple kinds of garam masala, and a bunch of other ingredients that will remain murky to me.

Anyway, by the time I reached the bottom of the bowl, I did find myself in need of something cool to remove the edge, which led me to my second discovery - mango ice cream. Another table (I think these folks were actually cooking professionals) was offering several types of dishes, plus a freezer-full of large white foam containers of mango ice cream. $2 bought me one of these containers, which held more ice cream than I'd be able to consume in two seatings. Still, I did my best to polish it off and the mellow, creamy dessert perfectly hit the spot. I was now ready to go back to savory, so I stopped by a third tent (I couldn't determine from looking at the occupants if their food came from a house kitchen or a diner kitchen) and asked for recommendations. The nice old lady steered me towards something called a bun kebab. I was a little hesitant at first as images of skewered chunks of grilled chicken and green pepper plopped on a burger bun filled my mind, but what I was given proved to be something different. Yes, there was a bun, but the meat inside was ultra-ground (almost like the inside of a sausage) and heartily spiced, with no condiments or toppings added. I discovered via further research that the bun kebab is a Pakistani sandwich popular at roadside stands in Karachi. The meat (chicken, beef, and/or mutton) is typically ground, mixed with lentils/cumin seeds/egg, then fried before being placed on the bun (sometimes with chutney). I wasn't able to determine exactly which meat my sandwich contained; nonetheless, it was tasty and not as spicy as the chatt patti haleem.

Starting to slow down at this point, I sought out one last dessert. The old woman from the last table suggested I try her gulab jamun, or fried dough balls covered in a honey-like syrup containing cardamom seeds and rosewater (yet another dish popular in Pakistan). Although a little heavy, the sweet warm dough/syrup combo was lip-smacking and I finished off all 4 dough balls. My stomach may have been full and my time may have been up, but I left the fair pretty impressed with the food offerings and look forward to next year's iteration...

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