When my family lived in Washington, D.C., my father often traveled abroad for work, which meant that after Ami, my mother, put my baby sister to bed, it was just her and me for dinner. Sometimes we liked to have a spicy desi omelet seasoned with tomatoes and onions. At other times, it was some form of grilled chicken boti kebabs, invariably marinated with freshly minced garlic, ginger, and aromatic spices such as ground coriander, cumin, and cayenne pepper. Ami would coat seasoned bite-size pieces of boneless, skinless chicken-referred to as boti in Urdu-with a spoonful or two of thick yogurt and allow the flavors to infuse into the meat. When it was ready, she would thread the chicken onto skewers and broil it until it became beautifully charred on all sides but remained tender and juicy within. Ami would then grab some tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and cilantro to prepare a chopped salad called kachumer-also sometimes spelled kachumber, which literally means "to mince or mash" in Urdu-that she finished off with salt, red chile pepper, and squirts of fresh lime juice. This was our side dish.
How we ate our chicken boti depended on what Ami had on hand. A jar of her hari chutney (made with fresh green chiles, garlic, lime juice, cilantro, and mint) was usually in the fridge, so that was our main condiment. If we had pita bread, we would cut a pocket into the disks to hold the chicken; and if there was no pita, we would tuck each boti between lettuce leaves, add tangy kachumer, and drizzle some hari chutney on top.
While my mother employed the broiler, the best way to prepare chicken boti is over a hot grill, which is the traditional method in Pakistan. In Lahore, the city of my birth, the cook at Punjab Tikka House continuously fans the coal embers beneath sizzling chicken boti impaled on steel skewers, which plump up as their edges turn crisp. The restaurant's marinade contains yogurt, and a homemade garam masala, but the rest of the spices remain a secret. I've always admired how the cook uses his bare hands to effortlessly slide the bite-size pieces of chicken onto a newspaper. In Punjabi, he calls out to his understudy to bring naan: "Chotay, naan liya." A stack of hot-from-the-tandoor, sesame-studded roghni naan goes into a paper sack, along with the chicken boti, sealed in a plastic bag-all for you to take home.
Takeout from Punjab Tikka House, which was located near my family home in Main Market, Gulberg, was like a pilgrimage for me every time I returned to Lahore in December. Having missed the opportunity to travel to Pakistan this past winter, I am bringing the flavors of this dish to my summer grilling get-togethers, and so should you. Preparing this dish in my home in Toronto always transports me to my childhood and my home in Lahore.
The beauty of my chicken boti kebab recipe is that it can be enjoyed in myriad ways and is designed to be personalized. Once the chicken has marinated for at least 30 minutes, it takes about eight minutes to cook through on a hot grill. (A charcoal grill is ideal, but a gas-fired grill will also do the job well.) As soon as those succulent bites of chicken are ready, slide them off your skewers, and assemble them the way my mother did, with lettuce and pita, or another way I love to enjoy them these days: stuffed into brioche hot dog buns!
While the marinade is infused with intense flavors, I feel the chicken boti is all about the fixings-and the combinations are endless. Chicken boti is often served with a cucumber mint raita or a hari chutney, which can be transformed into yet another condiment. Simply stir a tablespoon of the piquant green sauce into sour cream and spread that inside your hot dog buns. Build it up from there: Add your grilled chicken boti, some slices of crunchy cucumbers, shards of red onion tossed with salt and sumac, and another dollop of the chutney-sour cream combo. Drizzle it with even more fiery hari chutney. Grab your favorite chilled pét-nat or minty limeade to drink alongside it.
If you have any chicken boti kebabs left over, freeze them to enjoy at a later date and in different ways: atop baby Little Gem lettuce; sandwiched between slices of sourdough; or rolled into a paratha or chapati, dunked in hari chutney or red zhoug, or any condiment you prefer. The magic of these kebabs lies in their versatility. You can improvise and customize, tailoring them to your preference or adapting to whatever you have on hand-just like my Ami used to do, all those years ago.