- Food & Drink
Of all the dark gifts the fall of the Roman Empire gave us, the dining table and chairs is one of the worst. Reclining on a couch, dipping dormice in honey and honing your rhetoric seems a much more pleasurable way of eating than sitting spine straight at a table wondering when your neighbour is going to pass the mead.
But the Barbarian hordes would insist on being uncomfortable. Their communal benches and boards started us plodding towards chilled dining rooms with tables laid like etiquette chessboards. I’ve always despaired of sitting upright at dinner. My energy reserves are usually low and really, they need to be focused at digestion rather than deportment.
So you can imagine my delight when I walked into Hujra and saw one wall of the room lined with carpeted, curtained booths. I could eat my dinner lounging on a double layer of rugs, weary limbs supported by scatter cushions. Joy unconfined! Shoes kicked off, I installed myself alongside Sister Number 1 and the Kung Fu Sisters and settled down to an evening of ordering meat by the kilo.
The Kung Fu Sisters are Tooting residents and Hujra is one of their local discoveries. It serves Pakhtoon (Pashtun) food from the north west of Pakistan. I know next to nothing about Pakhtoon food so I submitted myself to the Sisters’ guidance, insisting only on ordering chicken wings because I can’t resist an opportunity to gnaw on tiny bones.
The chicken wings were, in fact, a plate of the meaty mini drummers, which I found perversely disappointing as it’s sucking flesh from between the ulna and radius that’s my particular delight. But I realise not everyone views the feeble forearm of a flightless bird as the prime cut, and the chunky upper arms provided enough warmly spiced flesh and bone to let me do my best Henry VIII impression.
If chicken wings had been my must-have, the chappli kebabs were the Sisters’ mustn’t-miss. The three huge rounds of minced lamb were aromatically flavoured with a mix of spices, including a lingering hit of cinnamon that gave them a fascinating savoury-sweet moreishness. It was with extreme politeness that we divided up the meat, everyone hoping for one more mouthful than their neighbour.
Hujra serves several of its main course dishes by the kilo or half kilo. Seeking variety, like the greedy London thrill seekers we are, we ordered a half kilo of Hujra dam pukht, a half kilo of chicken karahi and the seasonal vegetable of the day as a nod towards balancing our diet.
Hujra’s Facebook page tells me that dam pukht is a type of slow oven cooking that emerged in India and Pakistan 200 years ago. Meat, vegetables and herbs steam together is a sealed pot, producing a stew of succulent lamb that slips willingly from its bones while the potatoes and carrots soak up the herby, coriander-thick juices.
The chicken karahi was, in theory, made with boneless chunks of chicken but happily mouth-sized joints made their way into the pan alongside pieces of easy-to-chew chicken breast. The dish, spiked with tomatoes, green chilli and garlic had a more familiar flavour than garden astringency of the dam pukht and, importantly, plenty of sauce for us to dip our giant naan bread in.
Naans in Hujra come in baby blanket size, hanging from a metal spike. An airy bread with just a touch of butter, it made an excellent sponge for soaking up the karahi sauce and also a sturdy scoop for the vegetables of the day. They turned out to be mostly potato and carrot, with a scattering of tomato and green chilli.
I would describe them as the only disappointing bit of the meal – not because they weren’t tasty, but because potatoes, carrots, tomatoes and green chilli were already well represented in every other dish. But they were served in a fancy black cauldron, so I forgave them their ubiquity.
The bill for this feast of meat, washed down by endless teapots of cardamom-heavy tea, came to £54, not including service. Having spent no time patrolling the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, I can’t tell you whether Hujra is serving authentic Pakhtoon cuisine just like mother used to make.
But I don’t really care about authenticity. Only neurotic bores worry about whether the food they’re eating is culturally correct before concerning themselves with whether it’s delicious or not. I liked what I ate – especially the chappli kebabs and dam pukht. The staff were friendly, helpful and didn’t try to rush us as we nibbled our way through the naan, and I got to eat slumped on soft furnishing. I can’t imagine a meal better than that.