The dinner service on a Friday evening at Namak Mandi is heaving with families and regulars tearing into the oblong Afghan naans hanging from a large metal holder placed on each table. Behind the counter, Hamid, the proprietor, is surrounded by a swirl of smoke as he tips diced tomatoes into chunks of lamb that are bubbling in stock in a large black wrought iron wok. Enamelled teapots in pastel yellow hinting of considerable wear and tear hang over the counter and are taken down in quick succession to be filled with steaming qawah (green tea) and served alongside jaggery as a digestif after the meal.
A short walk from Tooting Bec station, Namak Mandi (which literally translates to salt market in Urdu) is named after an area in Peshawar, the capital city of Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province that borders Afghanistan. During colonial rule when salt was a precious trading commodity, Namak Mandi functioned as a salt market. However, as salt depreciated in value over time, the area evolved into a market selling gemstones and dry fruits as well as hosting a hub of restaurants specialising in the preparation of tikkas, barbecued meat skewers, and meat karahis that are named after the flattened iron woks in which the curry is prepared. It is a familiar sight in Namak Mandi, Peshawar for open-air restaurants to display skinned whole lambs and goat that are diced into smaller pieces on the spot, before being tossed into a karahi or grilled on a skewer.
Admittedly, this same feat is slightly more difficult to pull off in South London but what Namak Mandi in Tooting may lack in theatrics, it makes up for with robust flavours. With its limited but excellent repertoire of dishes, this establishment embodies the simplicity of Pashtun cooking from Northwest Pakistan. Pashtun cuisine, heavily influenced by Afghan culinary traditions, is characterised by the use of limited ingredients, delicate spicing, and a focus on fatty meats that are important fuel in harsh winters. Eschewing ghee, which is more commonly used in cooking elsewhere in Pakistan, mutton or lamb fat is used liberally in many dishes. “When good quality meat tenderises in its own juices, it releases a lot of flavour so you don’t need fragrant spices to dress it up, just salt and pepper is enough,” Hamid explains.
Namak Mandi is one of the very few restaurants in London that specialises in Pashtun cuisine. Having opened nearly a decade ago, it initially catered mostly to Pakistani and Afghani families but in recent years is drawing a more diverse clientele due to word of mouth publicity.
Pakistani restaurants in London tend to focus on food from the Punjab region partly driven by migration patterns from Pakistan to the U.K. The diaspora communities hailing from Punjab and areas in Pakistan-administered Kashmir significantly outnumber the Pashtun community. Furthermore, the focus on dishes from Punjab in Pakistani restaurants is also geared towards catering to a large Indian Punjabi community that is resident in the U.K.
“There are hardly any restaurants in London that serve food from Peshawar,” Hamid says: “We set up the restaurant not only to feed the nostalgia of our community but also to showcase to Londoners that there is a different side to Pakistani cuisine than the masala-heavy dishes they are typically used to.”
Hamid notes that having limited items on the menu enables better quality control and he cooks each portion of the karahi to order so there is no batch cooking.
With 24-48 hours notice, Namak Mandi can also prepare sajji, a traditional specialty that consists of whole lamb, or chicken, marinated only in salt, roasted over smouldering coal until the skin is golden. Hamid tells me that it is best enjoyed by a group of 12-15 people and is frequently ordered by families for the traditional feast to celebrate a child’s Muslim name-giving ceremony.
What to order:
Namak Mandi offers floor seating in its upstairs section that is divided into multiple booths. Sitting on floor cushions and eating together is an important expression of food culture and hospitality in Peshawar. An assortment of dishes ordered are arranged on a tablecloth on the floor that can be enjoyed by diners in the cosy comfort of these booths.
Chapli kabab: Beef kababs speckled with coriander seeds, red chilli flakes and tomatoes are a star attraction. Chapli is derived from the Pashto word chaprikh, meaning flat alluding to the kebab’s constitution. The kabab is fried in animal fat on high heat to ensure that the exterior chars and becomes slightly crispy while the inside is cooked through and pleasingly juicy.
Namak Mandi lamb karahi: Tender pieces of lamb simmered in tomatoes, salt, pepper, and ginger and cooked to order in a wok.
Kabuli pulao: A delicious blend of savoury and sweet, this pulao gets its sweetness and crunchiness from strands of caramelised carrots and raisins, which complements the saltiness of the meat. Buried under the dome of rice is a lamb shank with chunks of meat which fall from the bone.
Chicken or lamb charsi tikka: Cubes of meat dusted with coarse salt and sandwiched on skewers between layers of fat for tenderness. The word charsi implies that the meat could have an intoxicating effect based on an urban legend that one feels high after eating the tikka because it is just that good.
Sarson ka saag: One of the few vegetarian dishes on the menu, the saag is prepared with blanched spinach cooked with ginger, roasted tomatoes and herbs. Usually made with mustard leaves in Punjab, this version uses spinach and is an ode to home cooking in Pashtun families which tend to incorporate bean-based dishes as well as generous use of vegetables such as spinach and turnip in their repertoire.
Qawah and kheer (rice pudding) that has been slow cooking for eight hours are served at the end of each meal and are complementary.