A new Indian restaurant in New Westminster is making traditional clay-pot cooking cool again.
The Kabab Factory opened in the West End neighbourhood earlier this month and has clay pot biryanis on its menu among other dishes.
Slow-cooked in an earthen pot or "handi" in low flame for hours, the rice dish is an ode to a cuisine that originated more than 300 years ago, as per chef and owner Sagar Mahla.
Born and brought up in the state of Haryana, India, Mahla was exposed to the spice-rich kababs (marinated meat that’s skewered and grilled) and "layered" biryanis during his years in the country's capital of New Delhi.
Here is also where he learned about the one-pot Champaran handi mutton and chicken gravies that originated in Champaran, a city in the Indian state of Bihar, and "melt-in-the-mouth" Galouti kabab that was invented in the historic North Indian region of Awadh for a king who was too old to chew his meat.
The learning stayed with him even as he moved continents — relocating to Canada in 2017 and working in the kitchens of New West's Piva Modern Italian, Burnaby's Ricky's and Granville Island-based Edible Canada.
Mahla has now set up his own kitchen after nearly seven years of cooking professionally at other restaurants, ready to whip up the dishes laced with spices and historic tales for the people of New West.
A royal menu
The Kabab Factory offers a limited number of items that are specific to the Mughal cuisine — with a focus on biryani.
As history goes, Mahla explained, the Mughals (Muslim dynasty of Turkic-Mongol origin) invaded India in the 16th century and brought with them the now-popular biryani into the subcontinent. Their version of the dish was tweaked to include an expansive list of Indian spices.
Over the years, he said, different regions in the country came up with their own versions of the dish; Mahla's eatery will offer two of the popular kinds: Hyderabadi and Lucknowi biryani (named after Indian cities).
"In Hyderabad, the biryani is more spice-based, and there has to be a little bit of heat in the meat. In Lucknow, it's more about infusing the dish with the rose and kevda (a fragrant water extracted from the flowers of Pandanus Tectorius) scents, and using cashews in the biryani."
Both the biryanis are slow-cooked in clay pots, just like how it was done centuries ago, he said.
Mahla takes the efforts to import the food-safe certified pots in batches from India, as cooking in them enhances the flavours, helps retain moisture and heat and even reduces oil requirement, he said.
Before placing the clay pots on low flame, they are sealed using sheets of dough — "This way, no steam escapes; all the flavours stay packed inside. It tastes different and smells different."
The takeout biryani comes in the same "safely-disposable" pot in which it's cooked, and with the same pastry lid to keep "the fragrance and the freshness intact."
Unlike the more-commonly available biryanis that are a mix of rice and meat, Mahla's is a layered-one: "first meat, then rice followed by garnish."
The concept is so new to the town that Mahla had one of his customers lap up the rice only to find a whole layer of meat underneath it. Not many know that all the layers have to be scooped together, he said.
Which is why he is excited about his new venture — to get be the one exposing people to the traditional clay pot biryanis.
"I want to at least give people here [in Canada] the option of trying it out," he said.
The Kabab Factory is located at 1122 5th Ave.