My friend David takes a lot of Toronto taxis.
In the course of a couple of kilometres, he unearths huge chunks of personal history from the guy-behind-the-wheel, lapping up and identifying their accents, then hitting on pure gold – from a food writer’s perspective. When the average driver thinks “back home” food appears like a sparkling mirage on the horizon.
And I depend on David for a complete recounting.
He retells their food fables to me and I’m transfixed by lush mango groves and tales of chins dripping with sweet juice. I follow their food steps into crowded, open-air markets thick with long-robed shoppers eyeing over endless mounds of pistachios, dates, saffron and coriander seed.
But it’s the detailed recipes David recites the minute he gets out of a cab that absolutely enthrall. Like that Bombay fish recipe calling for two mysterious spices that we could rub into a nameless finned species… that oh, we would learn the name of if we went to a certain fish monger on Parliament Street. There, David would drop his cabbie friend’s name like a password and all the rest of the dish would unfold – like magic.
It all sounded delectable but way too unreachable for my inner impatient cook. So I got in a cab of my own and started asking around for Indian restaurant recommendations.
“My wife,” chuckled the driver, who then proceeded to give me a blow-by-blow description of the Chapli kebab they had plans to make together that evening, right after his shift. While he distinctly called for ground beef and suggested I shape this kebab into a patty, I had (as usual) a different vision.
Sadly, Mister Greek doesn’t stock sumac, which is one part of this recipe I wasn’t going to fudge. President’s Choice has recently introduced Black Label sumac ($4.99 a bottle in the spice section), but I am leery of its tagline “tangy and fruity with a touch of saltiness”. I don’t want salt in my sumac, I just want those ground up little berries prized for their tangy, yet non-acidic lemony flavour. Look for it in Indian and Middle Eastern grocery stores and toss it over grilled meat, poultry and fish, or dips like humus or white bean.
Shaping these kebabs is a little tricky. You can listen to my driver and skip the skewer and opt for a patty, but I like to roll the meat around a skewer for a pogo stick kind-of-look. I love tandoor-style keema kebabs rolled this way and just had to do it for this chapli kebab. Use metal or bamboo skewers, but remember to soak the bamboo ones in water first for 30 minutes if you don’t want them to catch on fire under the hot broiler as mine did.
1 lb ground lamb or beef
1 finely diced medium tomato
1 finely diced medium onion
1 egg, beaten
1 tbsp ground coriander
1 tsp salt
1 tsp hot pepper flakes
1 tsp crushed garlic
½ cucumber, diced
1 tomato, diced
Naan or pita bread
In a large bowl, combine ground meat, tomato, onion, egg, coriander, salt, hot pepper flakes and garlic. Marinate for at least 2 hours or overnight. Soak bamboo skewers 30 min., if using.
Shape kebabs on skewers or as patties.
Baste skewered kebabs with melted butter and cook on a hot grill or under broiler for 2-3 minutes on each side or until no longer pink. Alternately, heat butter in a hot frying pan and cook patties 2-3 minutes per side or until fully cooked.
Serve on naan or pita bread with chopped cucumbers and tomatoes and a dollop of yogurt sauce. Garnish with a sprinkle of sumac.
Yogurt Sauce: Drain one cup of plain yogurt in a cheesecloth-lined sieve over a bowl for one hour. In a medium bowl, combine drained yogurt, one diced jalapeno pepper, two tablespoons each of chopped mint and fresh coriander, a splash of lemon juice and salt to taste.