As we covered in Part 1 of our Chef Chat, Kaiser Lashkari emigrated to Houston from Pakistan specifically with the intent to get a degree in hotel and restaurant management and open his own restaurant. He attended the Hilton College at the University of Houston.
His first restaurant was only big enough to hold six seats, but he went on to open Himalaya Restaurant, where he still is today. Lashkari talked about the sacrifices he and his wife, Azra, have made to keep up with a restaurant open six days a week. He also spoke of the importance of making sure that ingredients meet certain specifications to ensure an excellent final product.
In Part 2 of this Chef Chat, we pick back up on the topic of ingredients and specifically discuss how much time some of Lashkari’s popular dishes take to create.
Himalaya is well-known for serving hunter’s beef. It is the Pakistani version of pastrami or corned beef. “When I was a kid, my parents used to order hunter’s beef,” said Lashkari. “A big block of beef is cured with garam masala, saltpeter, ginger and garlic. The brine is made with several spices, and then the meat is marinated in the brine for 11 days. After that, it is steamed, then baked. ”
There’s a spicy, dark yellow mustard sauce served alongside that Lashkari describes as “typical Indian or Pakistani.” Once the beef is cooked, there are some choices on how to eat it. Lashkari serves it two different ways. One version is served hot after it’s been shredded and fried with chili powder and black pepper. The other is served as thickly sliced cold cuts on a plate alongside fresh tomato slices, cucumber and lemon. It is, in fact, a plate of sandwich fixings.
A hunter’s beef sandwich is made with crispy bread, and Lashkari says it doesn’t matter much what type it is. It can be sourdough, baguette or pan bolillo. “Just something that is crunchy and crispy,” said Lashkari. “In Pakistan, hard, crispy bread is called karak roti. A sandwich of hunter’s beef is always with the spicy mustard, tomatoes and cucumber. There are no lettuce or onions in a hunter’s beef sandwich.”
Believe it or not, hunter’s beef isn’t even the most time-consuming dish made at Himalaya. That honor goes to the biryani. Lashkari makes different kinds with different types of meats, including lamb, chicken and shrimp. It’s a close cousin to Spanish paella. Rice is cooked in stock and then it’s flavored with various other ingredients.
“The meat is cooked about 90 percent of the way in spices and sauce,” explained Lashkari. “Then the rice is washed and it takes literally an hour until the water runs clear. After that, it soaks in water for four hours.” Following that, the rice is parcooked, incorporated in layers with the meat and then steamed in a pot for 45 minutes. The whole process takes six hours, and much of that is active preparation time.
It also takes patience and discipline. Lashkari says, “No matter how busy the restaurant is, no matter if someone is breaking the door down and wants biryani right now, we don’t open the lid and interrupt the steaming process. We don’t compromise on it and that’s why the biryani comes out so well.”
The biryani also exemplifies the importance of fresh, high quality ingredients. “Not necessarily everything expensive is good,” Lashkari elaborated, “but when you start with good quality ingredients, the end product is always better.” Some of the more precious ingredients include a special, extra-long grained rice and saffron, which is one of the most expensive spices in the world.
When properly prepared, the special rice is so long that customers unfamiliar with it mistake it for some type of pasta, like vermicelli. The saffron is a final touch, lending beautiful swaths of gold throughout the rice. Himalaya even makes its own fried onions to place on top of the rice while it is steaming. Lashkari says packaged onions just wouldn’t lend the same aroma.
Besides the hunter’s beef and the biryani, some of Himalaya’s “greatest hits” that meat-eaters should try are the grill platter with boneless chicken, lamb and beef and the spicy, complex green curry with chicken. (Vegetarians will want to order the green curry with the dense white cubes of unaged cheese called paneer instead.)
Lashkari gave us some insight into his green curry recipe without giving away anything. Apparently, others have used some really underhanded methods to try and get the secret. That’s how good it is. “There are four different sauces I made to create one dish. Only I have the recipe. People have sent their employees to find out the recipe. They have befriended my wife through other people to try and find out the recipe.”
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Chefs generally don’t like to eat their own food, so we asked Lashkari what he likes to eat during his few off hours. “I absolutely love sushi. I love Arabic food because it’s less spicy. When you cook with spices for so long, sometimes you want to get away from it. I absolutely love Vietnamese food, followed by Greek, Cajun, Creole, Texas barbecue — you name it! I’m pretty adventurous.”
Lashkari wants people to know that he highly values honest, objective feedback on his food and their dining experience. “If you don’t like the way I part my hair, or if you don’t like the color of my eyes, or if you don’t like the belt I’m wearing, it doesn’t matter. But when it comes to my food, give me your honest feedback and be specific as to how I can improve. If people come and tell me, ‘Hey, I want to eat this," — I have been inspired by so many things. Whenever I go out and see something, I am inspired to create it in my own way. I would like for people to tell me. Don’t be bashful.
"If my reputation precedes me, don’t judge me by that. Judge me by who I am and whether you have a good or a bad experience with me. Many times, people read things on the Internet and have a preconceived notion about how this is going to be. Don’t do that. All I’m saying is, give us a chance and if there is any way I can improve anything about the food, I will be more than happy to. I want my food to be a ‘10’ all the way!”