First came the Aryans, then the Persians, then Alexander the Great. After Alex croaked, a whole slew of different tribes came thundering in, taking turns at conquering one another for the valley -- the Seleucids, the Mauryans, the Bactrians, the Scythians, the Parthians, the Kushans, Muslim Arabs. The Arabs lost the land to the Turks, who were vanquished by the British, who lost control to the Persians. The Persians lost the region to the Afghans, and they in turn were kicked out by the Sikhs. And then the British came back. Whew!
Out of this chaotic history came two independent nations, Pakistan and India, in 1947. Over the decades, tension between the countries has continued (they've eased up somewhat recently) because of hostilities between Muslims and Hindus and the long-simmering dispute over the Kashmir region. And then there's Pakistan's current public-relations problem: If the country's name pops up in American media at all lately, it's usually connected to a story about the Taliban, kidnappings and terrorist training camps. Needless to say, I've crossed it off my vacation list this year.
But at Overland Park's three-month-old Kababesh Grill in the Highland Plaza shopping strip, the cuisines of Pakistan and India coexist happily on the same menu. There aren't a lot of Pakistani dishes, says co-owner Joe Hemayoun, a native of Lahore, Pakistan (as is his partner and chef, Zubir Sheh). But the handful of regional dishes that are served at Kababesh -- including paya, a spicy soup made with goat feet, along with 70 or so traditional Indian entrées, breads and desserts -- are representative of the smaller percentage of Pakistani natives in the Kansas City metro. "The Pakistani community is very small here, maybe 1,500 or 2,000," Hemayoun says. "There are many more residents here from India."
Hemayoun adds, however, that most of his customers are neither Pakistani nor Indian: "Sixty-five percent of my business is local American white people." Luckily for him, there certainly are plenty of those in Overland Park.
I hope I enhanced the ethnic mix on my first visit to the Kababesh when I arrived with beautiful, local white American Maria and her equally attractive African-American mate, Leo. It was a Friday night, and there weren't many other customers in the bright-yellow dining room. In fact, there were more servers than patrons. The young woman who waited on us was as all-American as a Britney Spears album, with tousled hair covering her eyes, braces on her teeth, and a giant, red, plastic gem around her neck.
She wasn't exactly a jewel in the service arena -- she had to run to the kitchen to find out which dishes on the menu were Pakistani, and she wasn't much more knowledgeable about Indian fare -- but she was effervescent. That bubbly friendliness almost made up for the little irritations, like serving an appetizer platter without small plates to share the pakoras and samosas. Or looking at me blankly when I asked for mango chutney to accompany the Indian breads. "Mango chutney?" she repeated, as if hearing the words for the first time. "It's on the menu," I reminded her. "Oh, yeah," she said, dashing off to the kitchen and returning triumphantly with the stickiest, jammiest chutney I'd ever tasted.