201 W. Chatham St., #103, Cary
919-377-8794 | kababishcafe.com
The stew, having cooled for a few hours, has gelatinized into a brick-red cylinder. It holds the shape of the plastic to-go container as it plops into the saucepan. Flecks of herb and whole spice hang suspended in the mold like mosquitos in amber. As flame licks the bottom of the pan, the gelled mass quickly liquefies, revealing lemon peel and chunks of bone and cartilage. Aromas fill the kitchen: cardamom, ginger, garam masala, the promise of chili heat.
And the gamey, unmistakable tang of mutton.
This is paya, a stew of Pakistani origin made by simmering the hooves and trotters of sheep or lamb overnight with a heady blend of spices and chilis.
I regarded a hoof in the thick, bubbling broth. It’s been a while since I ate anything weird, I thought.
In this case, weird is a prejudicial adjective applied by my Western myopia to any food item that contains the less-photogenic parts of various beasts. But, of course, there’s nothing weird about paya to the millions of people across Pakistan and Northern India who opt for a steaming bowl of the stuff as a hearty and almost ridiculously restorative breakfast.
“In Pakistan, they eat it on cold mornings, with naan,” says Samreen Nawaz. “The protein is very healthy.”
Nawaz—along with her husband, Syed Yousuf—owns Cary’s Kababish Cafe, where she’s “Sam” to customers, and where I picked up my order of paya. Nawaz and Yousuf, both from Pakistan, opened Kababish Cafe in 2015, and the restaurant has lashed together a following that comes for its vast menu of specialties from the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East.
I had a gigantic lunch at Kababish Cafe: chicken cooked with apricots, Lahore-style okra, and (best of all) a chilled serving of chaat papdi tossed with a yogurt dressing that managed to be sweet, spicy, and addictively tart. I meant to try a few bites of this chickpea-based street food staple and take the leftovers home; I mowed through the whole plate.
But the frigid winter weather—and a stubborn head cold—had me in the mood for more rib-sticking fare. I’m mostly uneducated on Pakistani cooking, but paya seemed as good a primer as any. I secured an order to take away, along with a king’s ransom in buttery naan.
Paya shouldn’t be diminished to a word like “weird.” It’s a serious showcase of the most bristling and fibrous parts of the animal. The spicy broth is shot through with collagen and springy foot-parts, making for a textural slip-and-slide, an unfamiliar yet wholly pleasant adventure. Lemon brightens the mutton-y slickness, and shards of whole spice radiate warmth and richness throughout the dish.
And the stew, like everything else at Kababish Cafe, is undeniably a product of home-cooking traditions, far removed from your average heat-lamp chafing dish of chicken tikka masala.
“Yousuf learned to originally cook from his mother,” Nawaz explains. “Authentic Pakistani dishes such as nihari, haleem, kunna, and paya—although he can cook a wide variety of dishes, all made fresh from scratch.”
Paya enticed me with its boldness, and its melange of simmered marrow and heat seemed to temporarily cure my lingering illness. But it was another Pakistani stew that proved my favorite from Kababish: haleem.
Haleem is popular in Hyderabad, particularly during Ramadan, where citizens breaking their day-long fast appreciate its high-octane calorie load. More a porridge than a stew, Kababish Cafe’s haleem is made from slow-cooked chicken that’s whipped together with crushed lentils, pounded wheat, and spices.
The end result is enchanting, humming with coriander and garlic, a source of instant comfort and warmth at once familiar and exotic. My wife and I sat at our kitchen island, bolstered against the freezing night, happily plunging naan into our bowls. She proclaimed haleem’s deliciousness with an enthusiastic burst of profanity, and I emphatically agreed.
We’re not the only ones taken with this nigh-perfect cold-weather dish.
“I love haleem,” Nawaz says. “It’s my favorite.”
Contact contributing food editor Nick Williams at email@example.com.
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