Food Stories: Bihari Kabab

Food Stories: Bihari Kabab

This meat delight has an infusion of mustard oil, specifically used in Bihar. It's uniqueness is in its marinade.
25 Sep, 2015

Mazhur-ul-Haq is from Bihar, he came to Pakistan with my nani aged 10 during the great migration in 1947. Agha, as we lovingly call him, was hired to play with the children, he has a strong Bihari accent, but tragically does not know how to make Bihari kabab, all my teen years I assumed that the Bihari kababs we ate at my nani’s house were Agha’s genius cooking. They were actually from Café De Khan.

Hence this Eid, I decided to go down memory lane and make Agha’s (actually Café De Khan’s) Bihari kababs.

It is believed that the Turkish and Persian soldiers enjoyed grilling fresh meat on fire, while it hung wrapped around their swords. The meat chunks were cooked in animal fat and once ready, consumed immediately. The soldiers hunted for survival, while journeying land to land for conquests. The kabab is also mentioned in the Turkish language script of Qissa-e-Yousuf published in 1377.

Kabab, like most exotic South Asian foods, has a wonderful history. It has traveled far and wide through times and regions, evolving to suit the taste of the indigenous population and cities it passed through.

Playing tune to the taste of the local spices and cuisines, yet maintaining its distinct universal appeal through the times. Undoubtedly, today, it is the most recognised eastern food in the western part of the world.

Kababs have always been a rustic favourite; and while they were said to be a prominent part of the Moghul menu, the variation of the modern day Bihari Kabab is a purely Bihari and Bengali take on the meat.

And though the Bihari kabab is made with meat chunks like in the ancient times, it is nothing like the kababs that the Turks must have eaten. Instead it has upgraded to a delicious, melt-in-the mouth texture, infused with spices, yougurt and tenderising papaya.

The word kabab is said to originate from the Arabic language, but the Persians, Turks and central Asians also lay claim to it. It literally means to fry, burn or cook on a skewer through grilling or open fire cooking.

The subcontinent hosts more than a dozen popular kabab recipes; shami, reshmi, dum, boti, seekh, chapli, galavati and tandoori, amongst many. However, the uniqueness of the Bihari kabab is in its texture, marinade and spice content.

The people of the subcontinent boast a diet rich in spice content, and traditionally cuisines across Pakistan and India include a wide range of kababs infused with garam masala, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, yogurt, black pepper, lemon juice, eggs, cornstarch, atta, coriander leaves, tomatoes and onions, unlike their middle eastern counter parts, which tend to be much milder.

Though cuisine from Bihar is traditionally vegetarian, the bihari kabab is a meat delight that has an infusion of mustard oil, largely used in India, and specifically Bengal and Bihar, and a liberal amount of masala.

The use of kabab chini, poppy seeds, nutmeg, mace and papaya as meat tenderisers makes it remarkably tender. The secret ingredient is a generous addition of bihari kabab garam masala.

While writing this blog, and preparing the kababs, I was left with a generous portion of marinade, and needless to say it was too delightful to be thrown away, hence that’s when I noticed the recipe of ungushti on the overleaf of the recipe given to me by Shazli Auntie, who is authentically Bihari.

Ungushti is a delight that is made with leftover bihari kabab marinade mixed in with a generous helping of flour, and salt if needed, wrapped around the skewer tightly like grilling a seekh kabab.

Needless to say the kababs and ungushti both turned out fabulous. Here it is, a very happy Eid Mubarak from my kitchen to yours.


1 ½ kg. veal chunk/beef chunk, thinly sliced and pounded
¾ cup yogurt
6 tbsp. finely grated raw papaya with skin
¾ cups fried onions
4 tsp. freshly grated ginger
4 tsp. chopped garlic
1 tsp. nutmeg powder
1 tsp. cinnamon powder
1 ½ tsp. cumin powder roasted
2 tsp. paprika powder
2 tsp. red chillie powder, or to taste
2 tsp. poppy seeds
4 tsp. bihari kabab garam masala
¾ cup mustard oil (optional)
Salt to taste

(Mix in food processor and marinade meat)

Bihari Kabab Garam Masala

(Use coffee grinder to make powder, and store unused portion in tightly sealed jar for future use)

2 tsp. kabab chini
2 tsp. fennel
2 star anise
4 tsp. whole back peppercorns
2 cloves
½ nutmeg
1 tsp. mace
10 green cardamom
6 black cardamom
2 tbsp. coriander, whole
2 tbsp. cumin seeds
12 dried red chillie

Method 1

Marinate the meat for at least 24 hours, grill meat on skewers, set a coal to heat on the grill.

Drop oil on the coal and cover with metal lid (if available) to infuse meat with smoke from the coal. Remove once the meat is tender.

Method 2

Heat a large pan with a heavy base, pour a little oil and heat, set meat chunks on pan, cover and cook for 10-20 minutes, flip and cook for another 10-20 minutes.

Transfer into an oven safe pan, broil for 15 minutes to dry moisture.

Heat coal, sprinkle with oil and set in oven for a few minutes to infuse kababs with smoke from the coal.

Serve with imli chutney, sliced onions, paratha or naan.

—Photos by Fawad Ahmed

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Akram Sep 25, 2015 05:33pm
I can feel my Cholesterol rising just looking at the pictures!
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Jason Sep 25, 2015 06:30pm
A colleague invited us for a brunch a few years back. Upon tasting the Behari Kabob, I was speechless. One of the best I had ever had. Come to find out his mother and family were from Behar, originally, and certainly knew how to make Behari kabobs. Local restaurants make them with different meats, and now can make them very good. Not as good as the one I had that day. Pictures as always, look mouth watering.
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algoritmi Sep 25, 2015 06:46pm
In pictures, they look more oily/greasy (typical desi style).
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Sajid Syed Sep 25, 2015 07:04pm
Humble request to Dawn and its contributors on food stories to write articles on vegetarian food and also when writing an article provide calories contents, health benefits and implications/challenges of the same so that readers are slowly but surely guided to Healthy Living.
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ajay gupta Sep 25, 2015 07:04pm
while your food stories are enticing, do come out of this mindset that India, or any state there is largely vegetarian, except perhaps gujarat. I pointed out earlier too that only 30% of India is vegeterian, and the eastern states, where Bihar is, are heavily non vegetarian. Non veg eastern food has been India's contribution to world cuisine much before pakistan came into existance.
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Nofel Sep 25, 2015 07:08pm
One point I want to make is use square skewers, if possible, for grilling. Round and flat skewers wont do the justice.
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Ishtiaq khan Sep 25, 2015 07:18pm
Thanks for posting these nice recipes
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Arslan Sep 25, 2015 07:29pm
Yumm ... Love Bihari Kebabs. Thanks for the recipe ..
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Alex Sep 25, 2015 07:52pm
Can we substitute papaya with something else? I understand that the it is used to soften the meat but where I live there is no papaya available. Is there any other ingredient we can use?
Recommend (0) Sep 25, 2015 08:01pm
Nice recipie though little different. Not many ppl know ungashti, its a great accompaniment with Kebab. Bihari have it with Onions marinated in Vinegar. Rice & Daal is a must.
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SHAZIA AFRIDI Sep 25, 2015 08:11pm
A very joyful Eid Mubarrak to you Bizma, and many thanks for these Baq'r Eid recipes : ) OMG - we used love Café De Khan’s Bihari Kababs! BTW, some traditional eateries like Bundu Khan's Lahore outlet make excellent Bihari Kabab. We have a family friend who's cook learned how to make authentic Bihari Kabab from his Bihari relative and it's seriously amazing. Some of the ingredients in this cook's recipe are similar to what Bizma has posted from Karachi's Café De Khan’s recipe. One difference is we leave out the red chilies to reduce the heat level and instead add 1-2 fresh green chilies minus the seeds. Will have to try your recipe for Ungushti which I've heard of yet not attempted - what a great idea for leftover Bihari Kabab marinade : ) I never realized per your recipe here is that poppy seeds tenderize meat? And please let us know what is kabab chini? Is it meat tenderizer which is white and looks like salt/sugar?
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Imtiaz Faruqui Sep 25, 2015 08:27pm
No need to go into such a long process, I grill Behari Kabaabs very often, in New York and even my Americans friends loved it, The easy way is marinate the meat peaces with SHAN- masala and yogard or leman juice and a little Oil, mix it together and leave it for few hours or over night. Its ready now broil it in oven or grill it.
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syamal datta Sep 25, 2015 09:01pm
I reckon the taste of Meat would the first casualty in these type of over spiced cooking. For stale or poor quality meat , where you need to hide drawbacks of your ingredients, it is OK.
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Thakur Vikas Sinha Sep 25, 2015 09:03pm
Good to hear about this kebab from Bihar. There is another very tasty item called roll Bihari. Once while in New York City, I had the occasion to have Roll Bihari at Lexington Avenue South. On enquiring, I learnt that these people were originally from Bihar. They had migrated to Karachi at the time of Independence. Later they moved onto the US. It was a pleasure eating there and interacting with them as I am originally from Bihar.
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Sarwar, USA Sep 25, 2015 09:09pm
@ajay gupta At least your PM Modi is portraying India to be completely Vegetarian.
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neeraj sinha Sep 25, 2015 09:20pm
thank you mam for the wonderful recipe, i am myself from Bihar but i never heard of Bihari Kebab, we cannot eat beef so i will try something else thnx a lot
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Gaurav Arya Sep 25, 2015 10:30pm
Excellent article. Just one correction...most Pakistanis think that Indians are largely vegetarian. That is farthest from the truth. About 66% of India is meat-eating. Thats about 800 million people. The only difference is that while Pakistanis put meat in almost everything and mix it up with dal and vegetables (apart from eating pure meat), in India you will find that if the dish is mutton, there will be only mutton. A Bengali may put a potato in it. Largely, India is meat eating.
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tariq Sep 25, 2015 11:58pm
Bisma, I have been making Behari kebab for more than 30 years using a recipe from a colleagues wife. Being passionate about food and a hobby chef, I have experimented and adapted to what I humbly consider a near perfect Behari kebab. Looking at your masala ingredients, you are pretty much on the nose. I would say the mustard oil is essential and not optional if you desire the full experience. The one area I can suggest on is the thickness of the meat. Traditionally, a 2in by 2 in cube of meat is taken and opened into a ribbon the thickness of a coin (in Canada a tooney's thickness in Pakistan the thickness of an old 8 anna coin). The length is about 4 to 5 inches. This is threaded onto the skewers and the marinade is trapped between the meat threading. this results in two thing: (I) the dripping on the coal of the excess marinade to smoke and flavour the meat, and (ii) the trapped marinade cooks to tasty mush and keeps the meat juicy. Here (in Canada) I use eye of round or rump and cut the strip to the thickness that I need. For this kebab, stay with a leaner cut which is gristle free. Marbling in the meat is good. I do not recommend keeping the meat thinner than a thick coin as the papain and enzymes in ginger, mace nutmeg and mustard will totally render the meat to a paste consistency. Great recipe, Bisma. Thanks.
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GAWAL MANDI YA Sep 26, 2015 12:29am
I take my family to Houston every year for the BASANT in Houston Texas since I'ma punjabi from Gawal Mandi Lahore,having lived in Texas most my life,its a short 4 hour trip from East Texas,we decided to eat at the BUNDU KHAN this time,I really wanted to eat the tikka boti since its my favorite and hardly anyone makes it in Dallas or other places,I must say,I had never had the Behari kababs and at Bundu Khan,they were 1000 times better than the tikka boti,and needless to say,Bundu Khan was packed on friday night,reminded me of Liberty market in Lahore(my town) Behari kabab is awesome friends.Thanks for sharing these cool food stories DAWN,it makes me hungry just looking at the pics sitting here in the oil fields of Texas.
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tariq Sep 26, 2015 12:31am
@SHAZIA AFRIDI Kabab chini is all spice. It looks like a large black peppercorn.
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tariq Sep 26, 2015 12:34am
@Imtiaz Faruqui Shaan is about the best packet masala I have tried for Behari kebab but it can not hold a match to the real deal. Once you try marinating with these species that Bisma has generously shared with us you will find it hard to go back to Shaan. Well worth the extra effort... and use good hardwood charcoal and not briquettes to get the right aroma.
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Mohammad Ali Jummah Sep 26, 2015 01:54am
To bad there are still hundred thousands of Biharis who still left in Bangaldesh, we could have been enjoying these kababs in every street corner.
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Valar Morgulis Sep 26, 2015 02:27am
@ajay gupta You're right, hence we have saved the name to credit the origination. A Bihari Kabob and a Bombay Briyani may still be the same for commoner, but food connoisseurs can tell a Bihari Kabob or Bombay briyani in India is completely different than their Pakistani versions. Pakistan has moved on and so has Pakistani food in it's own direction away from India. The holdovers from pre-partition are quickly diminishing and our food, fashion, music, entertainment, nothing bare any major similarity to present day India. But that is for the affectionados to tell, of course a layman can't tell the difference. We love our uniqueness and creativity in regards to culture and fully appreciate it. I would also encourage you to look at Pakistan culture as distinct and evolving, instead of trying the find colors of India in it. We do the same when we look at Indian culture, we appreciate it for it's Indian-ness, not for spots of Pakistan here and there.
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KP Sep 26, 2015 02:39am
@Alex Using yogurt in the recipe and, marinating 24 hours, should achieve the same results.
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Abi Sep 26, 2015 04:39am
Thanks Bisma, another gem, but looks like we are heading further west. So look forward to when we can have some home grown alternatives. People must have been starvng before the marauders turnd up with their copy of Mrs Beetons cook book,. Luckily it already contained every recipie anyone could even imagine. Luckily they managed to translate into the local dialect.
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syed Haider Sep 26, 2015 05:23am
@Alex go to any grocery store and ask for Meat tenderizer
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Samir Sep 26, 2015 06:59am
@Alex Meat tenderizer powder contains papain, which is extracted from raw papaya. Works well.
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ajay gupta Sep 26, 2015 07:46am
@Sarwar, USA he is an ill informed gujarati and his world view is shaped thus. There is no need to assume that majority India or Indians think like him.
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Gus Sep 26, 2015 07:46am
Being Bihari I feel proud of this ...we in India are used to mutton(goat meat) more. Muslim population do eat beef, but quality of beef may not be same as Pakistan.
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AMAKY Sep 26, 2015 09:42am
My search for the perfect Bihari Kebabs ends in Canada. Truly described in this review:
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Kamlesh Sep 26, 2015 09:47am
Nice recipe. Hey but i think kebab in central asia and middle east do not have that much spices like in india or pakistan , tha may due to abudance of spices in sub continent.
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kallan Sep 26, 2015 10:44am
To have a unique store selling every type of kebabs from the sub-continent to Iran would be a good business model but not everyone enjoys kebbab due to health consciousness.
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Shajia Sep 26, 2015 11:14am
@Gaurav Arya Thanks for the info. Something new for me.
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Khaled Sep 26, 2015 11:20am
looks sumptuous .
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Objective Sep 26, 2015 03:20pm
@ajay gupta meat dishes were introduced by the Muslims from Iran and Central Asia who came to India (Mughals for example). Before that Indians were vegetarians. So in terms of mindset, hmm maybe thank the Persians, Turks and the Central Asians for introducing these foods.
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ajay gupta Sep 26, 2015 07:27pm
@Valar Morgulis agree, but all pakistanis who visit north India still go gaga over similarities and how nani lived here and dadi plucked mangoes from this orchard. very few except seasoned writers see any difference.
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Neutral Indian Sep 26, 2015 07:56pm
@Valar Morgulis Nice thoughts.. appreciate your message on appreciating diversity rather than looking for commonality - From an Indian
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SHARFUDDIN Sep 26, 2015 09:42pm
Our family originally migrated from Bihar and we have been making the behari kabas since ages. Our variant never uses garlic and fennel. We also try to restrict the use of water as much as possible and the blending of ingredients is done in yogurt or mustard oil. If you learn to use fresh unripe papaya paste and the quantity it takes to tenderize you do not need to marinate it for 24 hrs. It should work in 4 hrs.
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hasnain Sep 27, 2015 04:22am
Jason, I agree with you from Picture this bihari Kebob does not even close the the original ones. First of all meat is more like pasanda (even more thinly sliced) and as long piece as possible. secondly when put it in skwere it becomes so closely tight that it is very hard/tough to get separate. Sometimes the pieces are as long as over 6-10 inches as well. The more hard work you do on the meat the better the kabobs comes out. I think that author should go and eat this at a bihari people house.
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Mir Ali Sep 27, 2015 04:41pm
@neeraj sinha Neeraj, you can use lamb or goat meat instead...
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Valar Morgulis Sep 29, 2015 11:28pm
@ajay gupta And those memories are cherished one and will always be there. A lot of time has passed and not many of those are left on both sides of border who can recall those memories but are treasure to both of us nonetheless. My grandparents were from Lucknow and Brailey, but have passed away. I used to hear all stories of Northern India from them. Similarly, I can see similar experience Indians missed when they recall stories from Lahore and Peshawar. There should be a food festival at least once a year on both sides of Wahgah border at the same time, where borders are open and people can enjoy delicacies of both countries, like a 1 mile food street or something.
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