The Bold Flavors That Make Pakistan's Chicken Karahi Stand Out

As a matter of tradition, Pakistani hosts will often insistently offer their guests additional servings of the food, according to Cultural Atlas. Frankly, we would not mind. With their array of curries, who would? From silky sauces (the quality attributed to the cream that renders the texture silky, or reshmi) to the ones influenced by Middle Eastern flavors, these luxuries are commonly made at home with various types of meat at the center and also headline the main course section at any good restaurant, per

Among the many curries that this culinary paradise offers, the country's very own Pakistani chicken karahi is considered the hallmark of its cuisine (via The Food Wonder) and holds a special place in homes. Why you may ask? This recipe is easy to make, yet layered. It is driven by the flavors of a spice-infused, fragrant tomato sauce and ginger — perfect for winter. 

The mountainous origins of karahi

Chicken karahi was reportedly first made in northern Pakistan's mountainous Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa region, according to Tea for Turmeric. Karahi is the urdu name for the deep cast-iron pan that the dish was cooked in over an open fire.

The dish has been altered over time. An example of the change lies in the use of onion — the original recipe did not mention this common vegetable (via The Food Wonder). However, several restaurants now use large pieces of red onion to cut costs. You may also find capsicum (red chili pepper) and contemporarily convenient items such as canned tomatoes used for the base. Garlic is another common addition.

The lack of onions (at least in terms of the original recipe) also distinguished the Pakistani karahi from the curry made by its neighbor, India. Onions and green peppers are featured in the Indian variety. However, many cooks say that these are not hard and fast rules — it will eventually simmer down (pun intended) to the spices and cooking technique of the curry.

The bold flavors of Pakistani chicken karahi

The soul of Pakistani chicken karahi, its tomato base, is rendered fragrant by the bold garam masala – a melange of cardamom seeds, whole black peppercorn, whole cloves, star anise pods, cumin seeds, ground cinnamon, ground coriander, and ground nutmeg. 

The garam masala is considered a forward melange for the balanced complexities it brings to curries made in several Southeast Asian nations, according to CNBC TV18. The masala also sets apart the karahi curry from other Pakistani hallmarks, such as chicken Lahori, which uses lemon and yogurt for mild-yet-rich flavors (via NDTV).

Karahi's flavor is further emboldened by ginger and cilantro. Other ingredients include oil, clarified butter, medium-ripe tomatoes for the base, chili flakes, turmeric, and salt, per The Food Wonder. And of course, don't forget the chicken.

Once you have the ingredients, start by sauteeing the meat in hot oil and clarified butter until it turns brown, according to Delish. Add ginger slivers (and garlic if you want), tomatoes, garam masala, and salt. Note that the moisture released by the tomatoes will keep the chicken moist. 

If the mixture dries up, you may add a little water. Cook on high heat until the tomatoes blend with other ingredients. When the oil separates from the mixture, you will know that your dish is ready. Top it with cilantro.

Pakistani chicken karahi is typically served with fluffy naan (check out our recipe with nigella seeds and cilantro), warm roti, or steamed rice.