Only 55 years have passed since India gained independence from Britain and then split into two countries, Pakistan in the north and the remainder of India in the south. Great similarities remain between their cuisines -- curries, tandoor-cooked meats and desserts flavored with rose water among them.
But whereas some Indian sauces are as fine-tuned as a perfect beurre blanc, Pakistani cooking tends to involve spices -- some whole -- tossed in with apparent abandon; minimal cooking often preserves the pungent splendors of garlic, ginger root and chiles. And unlike in India, where many people keep to a vegetarian diet, the Muslims of Pakistan love their meat as long as it's halal (the Islamic equivalent of kosher). There always seems to be a bowl of butchered goat or chicken waiting like a blank canvas for a dousing of turmeric and cinnamon, cardamom and black pepper, in Salt 'n' Pepper's open kitchen.
Waiting in the sparse, brightly lit room among customers joking in Urdu with owner Tanvir M. Inam and some of his employees, you can watch a cook molding roughly ground beef mixed with raw chiles, onion and spices around long metal skewers; after a few turns on the grill, he slides the hollow, charred kebabs onto a plate for you to grab at with mitts of fresh-baked naan (like unstuffed paratha). Mutton, or goat, is a lovely meat once the toughness is cooked away: sweet like lamb but less threatening in its gaminess. Try it cooked down in a dark sauce of spinach and ginger, or masala-style in a turmeric-orange, slightly gelatinous gravy redolent of ginger and cinnamon.
Chicken masala is made with the same complex sauce, and chicken biryanee is like a dry jambalaya made with basmati rice, saffron and irregular pieces of tender chicken heavily seasoned with cinnamon and other warm spices so that even the white meat looks like beef. One well-built customer who seemed to enjoy his ironic nickname, Baby, snacked on sugared fennel seeds at the counter while a cook dished him up a second portion of this traditionally festive rice dish.
Just as Pakistani food is robust with spice, it's generally prepared with more oil than some Westerners might prefer; if you're one of them, try cutting the sauces with a side of basmati rice so light it almost floats. Tiny salads of raw cucumbers, green peppers and radishes accompanying all entrees offer similar reprieve.
Despite the carnivorous leanings, vegetarians can order lentils (dal) shot through with whole black peppercorns, chiles and cilantro; flaky samosas paved inside with potato, cilantro and cumin seed; and slightly soggy pakoras, which are vegetables (primarily onions) coated heavily in chick pea batter, fried and re-heated to order.
And of course there are the superb, buttered breads -- naan and paratha -- the rolling out and baking of which seem to provide the subject for many heated conversations in the kitchen. A friend of mine has adopted a weekly routine that involves taking his hot paratha in a paper bag. It's cool enough to handle by the time he reaches Tower Records and hearty enough to last him through an hour of browsing.
Almost everything at Salt 'n' Pepper is best with bottled mango juice and a side of the spicy, part-curd yogurt sauce that's as free as catsup.
Every serious eater I observed ordered his own naan, and nearly every table finished a Pakistani meal with cardamom-scented rice pudding (kheer) or delicate, housemade almond popsicles (kulfi). Each sweet costs $1, which should shame nearby restaurants where mass-produced desserts are garnished with mint leaves and sold for six times as much.
A peculiar set of agendas blend successfully in this small business, which gives me hope that Inam will make ends meet on lower Iberville Street while continuing to offer Pakistani food at rock-bottom prices. All kinds of people stumbling along the high-traffic corridor are drawn in by computer-printed signs advertising cigarettes and po-boys. Tourists who wouldn't dream of eating Pakistani food in New Orleans order fried seafood platters, and a few pizzas wait in the open air to be re-heated by the slice.
Meanwhile down the block, the Pakistani-run Asian Grocery rents Indian movies and sells bags of whole spices. The steady supply of double-parked cabs between the two places in this unlikely neighborhood proves that there's nothing predictable in the hunt for great new flavors.