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Kababs are an Asian invention. They probably started in the steppes of Central Asia as a necessity for nomadic horsemen, and were gradually refined in the courts of Persia and then Mughal India.
A kabab is a piece of meat, poultry, fish or vegetable grilled. Occasionally, it can be cooked in a pan under controlled conditions. You can have meat with bones, off the bone, or even minced, with or without spices.
There are various ways of cooking kababs. You could roast them in a tandoor, or thread them onto a skewer and lay them flat on a bhatti, a few inches above lighted coals. Those in the know insist that a tandoor is a somewhat unforgiving medium: all the juices that run off the meat are lost, whereas on a bhatti, the drops that fall from the meat, do so onto the coal and immediately are released back as steam and smoke, which perfumes the meat with a delicacy that can never be matched in a tandoor.
In much of the Middle East, including Turkey, the grills are not only open, unlike the tandoor, they are vertical and rotate, making sure that every part of the meat is evenly cooked. Unlike kababs that are cooked in India, Arabic kababs often feature sliced meats.
But you can cook kababs in a pan, and the most common way of doing this is on a mahi tawa – a giant vessel, with a relatively flat bottom surface and a close-fitting lid. Heat from the fire below and nowhere for the steam to escape means that the kabab – usually minced – is not roasted to form a crust but is evenly and lightly cooked.
Lastly, the one gastronomic puzzle – the shami kabab. It is not called so because it was cooked in the evening, but because it originated from Sham – the ancient name for Syria.
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