Saturday, November 6, 2010

Three Muslims and a Jew

Steve and I have frequented what I had first thought was an Indian restaurant on the Beco dos Surradores located on some stairs...(what a surprise) on the way up to the Castelo Sao Jorge.  It was only my stupidity thinking it was an Indian restaurant when the sign clearly states that is is "Restaurante Paquistanes, Taste of Punjab". Ok.. not Indian, but Pakistani...a close neighbor and similar cuisine. Their food in a word: DELICIOUS! The price: Incredibly reasonable. You can have a complete dinner for well under nine euros! But first....some introductions and then my story.

Taste of Punjab is not far from Rossio Square and Praça da Figueira

 The store is owned by two men: Asim and Mohammad, although Asim is also called Mohammad. I am not sure why although it was once explained to me. Asim is also the gentleman who always takes our orders and recommends different dishes to try. He doesn't like us getting the same dish each time we come in, so we take his suggestions and try new ones.
 a simple and very clean restaurant inside
Mohammad is the head chef. I believe he came from Saudi Arabia where he was an engineer. He is a warm and friendly man and it was in his restaurant that I first saw the famous copper bowls that I want to buy.  Mohammad has promised he would find some for me to purchase.  "Any day", he tells me. I wait patiently and he has my cell number. I really do want these bowls!
A third person who could be considered a sous chef is Ali. He is in charge of making the roti and the naan (two kinds of bread) and also helps prep some dishes.  Lastly there is Claudia, a Brazilian girl who helps serve, prep and clean up. Asim, Mohammad and Ali are Muslim. Oh yeah...I am Jewish. The thing I learned at the end of this is...WOW...we really are alike!!! ("We" meaning Jewish people and Muslim people. Me??? Well, I am a bit of a heathen, but still trying to figure the whole god thing even at age 60.)

Mohammad: Engineer turned restaurant owner and cook        

Asim: Restaurant Owner showing the history of Tandoori

Ali:master Naan and Roti maker
Claudia: Brazilian girl who helps in the restaurant
Last week while eating lunch, I asked Asim and Mohammad if I could come in and watch them cook. Happily for me they readily agreed and I showed up on their doorstop at 10:30 a.m. the very next day. While waiting for Mohammad,  a local woman named Eucilinda came in for her daily dose of bica. She sat at my table and began speaking Portuguese. I said, "Eu não fala Português" but she didn't seem to care. She continued on for twenty minutes in Portuguese telling me about her life. When it was time for her to leave, she shook my hand and said "Adeus."  I learned a little about her and her travels to Spain and France. (At least I think that's what she was telling me.) She was delightful and quite an imposing character.

Eucilinda drinking her morning bica
Mohammad had still not arrived so Ali was nice enough to explain the art of making bread. Although his English is not great, he had no problem making himself understood. After rolling out the dough he placed it on a well padded round object.   

  Then, without using an oven mitt he hurled the dough in to the side of this very hot well with red-hot coals. (He swears he has never burned himself now that he has had some practice.  This is not something I will ever attempt. I burn myself while ironing!)

see the dough stuck to the side of the wall???? AMAZING!!!!!

I thought this was all pretty awesome watching the dough cook and form its bubbles right there on the side of this well. (Watching cooking techniques has always amazed me.) Once the dough started to brown, Ali took some kebab tool, stabbed the dough, removed it, and seasoned it with garlic and herbs. Very proudly he handed the bread to me. It was warm and tasty and I devoured it.

 He is also cooks the tandoori chicken in the hot oven once it is prepared by Mohammad.
tandoori chicken
Finally Mohammad came in and started cooking. Over the course of an hour he slowly sauteed onions and carrots with many wonderful seasonings that serve as a base to all Pakistani dishes. The aromas were almost sensuous...the smell of curry and cardamom permeated throughout the kitchen. He explained how these vegetables would be added to the main dishes he would cook and serve later in the day. Many times that morning he held the spoon out for me to take my finger and taste the incredible flavors. All good chefs taste their cooking before serving, we agreed. The smells and tastes equaled perfection!

I was amazed at how tender and delicious the meat and chicken tasted. That's when I learned about Halal, a way of slaughtering meat very similar to Kosher preparation.

We decided then to take a break and drink some Chai Spice Milk Tea which Pakistanis drink every morning to calm their body and mind. It was delicious and although I am not a tea drinker, this has become a favorite of mine. I noticed that before Mohammad drank he said "Bismillah." He told me that before any endeavor, such as eating or starting on a journey, this word is said. When Mohammad explained the word, his definition was quite beautiful. He told me that saying "bismillah" allows god...or goodness... to flow through your soul. I liked that thought..and I like Mohammad. He is a kind and patient man. I try to remember to say that now before I eat and each time I see Mohammad he reminds me of the word with a smile on his face.

I was invited back the following Sunday to assist with a group of 40 people who would be coming in for a birthday party. I was really excited at the thought. But the next day I woke with a horrid cold and thought handling food would not be a good idea.  I called them to decline and hope that I will once again have the opportunity to cook with them.

You will not find The Taste of Punjab on a least not yet. I have been encouraging Asim to develop one because the food is great and there are only a few Halal places to eat in Lisbon. Muslims  and others who like carefully prepared food look for this type of restaurant. I think the rest of the world needs to know how good the food is.

More than learning how to cook this wonderful cuisine, I have learned a far better lesson about friendship across cultures.  These are my first Muslim friends. They are good people...kind, loving and hard working and I am so happy to know them. I will eat at this restaurant many more times before we leave in December. But for now...Khuda-hafiz (good-bye).
Mohammad, my teacher...and me


  1. Very touching narration by Ellyn. I wonder there r people like her who can judge things so neutrally, otherwise the thumb rule is....anything to do with islam is barbaric, ancient,inhuman etc. hope people will read this to enable people live in peace