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.
But we ate it anyway, slathering it on the freshly baked naan and kolcha breads that we'd ordered with our dinners: a mixed tandoori grill for Maria, the lamb-chop tandoori for Leo, and ginger chicken for me. We also shared a dish of haleem ("Very famous in Lahore," Hemayoun assured me later), a beef-and-lentil dish "cooked overnight," according to the menu, "to form a tasty paste."
Paste is the operative word. It's a sticky, greenish-brown concoction that tastes more appetizing than it looks, nicely flavored with ginger and garlic. Still, the consistency was jarring. "A cross between pudding and refried beans," said Leo, who could take only one bite. He was much more interested in the Indian dishes, such as his tandoor-baked chop, which arrived on a white-hot sizzling platter. "But it's more bone than chop," he noted sadly. True, it wasn't the meatiest chop I'd ever seen; it was a little more well-done than the medium-rare he'd requested, and more peppery than spicy.
A well-traveled friend of mine told me that the biggest difference between Indian and Pakistani cuisine is that in Hindu India you can get pork and in Muslim Pakistan you can get beef. (As in Mexico, you can get goat everywhere.) There's no pork on the Kababesh menu, but lamb, chicken, beef, shrimp and goat are in abundance. Muslims aren't too keen on booze, either, and Kababesh Grill isn't serving it, though the owners have applied for a liquor license. Leo and Maria sneakily brought in their own vino, a bottle of chilled Riesling that was a cool counterpoint to the fiery tandoori meats on Maria's white-hot grill platter (chicken tika with shrimp, beef and goat kebabs). But poor Maria, who indulged in Indian appetizers and breads before dinner arrived, was too full to make even a dent and took most of it home. I, on the other hand, greedily ate every bite of the tender pieces of ginger chicken and snagged bites from Leo's and Maria's plates, too.
For dessert, Leo ordered lahori kulfi, an ice cream made with pistachios, almond and saffron. What arrived was half-melted, but Leo bravely dipped his spoon in anyway. "It's not ice cream," he said. "It's frozen soup." It was an interesting alternative to the more familiar sweets on the Kababesh menu, which included traditional Indian rice pudding, kheer, and fried cheese balls, gulab jaman, swimming in sugary syrup. But it wasn't particularly memorable.
A few weeks later, I returned with Bob and Alathea, the vegan. I had promised her there were lots of meatless and dairy-free dishes on the menu, and she ordered the one that sounded the most unusual, benghan bharta, described on the menu as "pulp from charbroiled eggplant sautéed with onions, garlic and fresh tomatoes." The dish, Hemayoun assured me, is "very popular in Pakistan and India." It was with Alathea and me, too. It's visually beautiful: tiny cubes of amber-colored eggplant, onion, peppers and tomato. I liked it just as much as the dinner I chose for myself, kahari, which is another of those recipes that Hemayoun says is beloved on both sides of the India and Pakistan border. Mine was a delicious, fragrant dish of sliced chicken seared in a skillet with ginger, onions, green chiles and cilantro. I spooned it on hunks of flaky paratha bread and ate every bite.
The restaurant's name, Hemayoun told me, refers to all the different kebab offerings on the menu. It's a kebabateria, all right, with tandoor-baked lamb, chicken, shrimp and minced-goat versions listed on the menu. "We sell quite a lot of goat," Hemayoun said. But I couldn't convince Bob to order it. He asked our server (a pretty Reese Witherspoon look-alike) if he could have something with beef. She brought him a sizzling platter heaped with chapli kebabs, grilled spiced-beef patties topped with onion and sliced green peppers served with raita, the milky sauce of yogurt, cucumber and mint that cools the palate after all those head-spinning Indian spices.
Bob gave the chapali a definite thumbs up: "It's really good," he said. "Not what I expected but delicious."
The servers (mostly young college kids) aren't exactly polished and seem clueless about most of the dishes on the menu, but they're extremely friendly and accommodating. "I like this place," Bob said. "I hope they can make it."
The last restaurant in this location, the ill-fated Italian Altizio's, did have its fans (obviously not enough of them), and Joe Hemayoun is working hard to build up his own loyal customer base, offering a weekday lunch buffet and a $9.99 Sunday brunch that features Indian and Pakistani dishes ... and custom-made omelets.
I haven't investigated the brunch yet (the combination of sticky, pasty haleem and a cheese omelet frankly doesn't sound that enticing), but I admire Hemayoun's inventive marketing concept. A restaurant serving Pakistani dishes around here is unusual enough, and with all of the negative press the country has generated, it's a brave culinary decision. But that's all the more reason to visit the Kababesh Grill. The best way to overcome cultural assumptions is to set them aside and just eat.