Lansing isn’t Singapore or Istanbul, but it’s no culinary backwater, either. Snap a giant needle onto the Capitol dome, spin it like a compass and you’ll find stuffed Greek gyros to the west, spicy jerk chicken from Jamaica downtown, Vietnamese Pho soups with a dozen ingredients on the south side, and the savory berbere spices of Ethiopian chicken stew in East Lansing.
As of March, the culinary compass also points to Pakistan, courtesy of Karahi King Grill in East Lansing’s Trowbridge Plaza.
Pakistani cuisine is nearly indistinguishable from Indian cuisine, owners Farooq and Rahilla Cheema explained.
“Basically, it’s the same food,” Farooq Rahilla said. “The living style is the same, the food is the same.”
The claim makes perfect sense in the light of history. The nations of Pakistan and India were largely Western constructs, carved from the carcass of the British Empire. So if you love the rich, generously spiced, mouth-popping flavors of India, Pakistani food will not disappoint.
Unlike India, Pakistan is a predominately Muslim country. The meat served at Karahi King is halal, prepared according to Islamic law. There’s also a bit more meat in Pakistani dishes than can be found in Indian cuisine.
Before coming to the United States over a dozen years ago, Rahilla, who manages Karahi King, married her husband in Pakistan. She stayed behind for a couple of years while Farooq, who now owns a couple of small businesses, established himself in a new land. Since then, she has largely been a devoted mother at home, but came to realize she needed an outlet.
“This is my first time I come out to work,” she said. “He was busy all the time, so I decided I needed to do something.”
She grew up with Pakistani food, working in the kitchen with her mother, then cooked for her own family, so Rahilla is well versed in the food she now serves.
The daily lunch buffet ($6.99) is popular, with around 15 items offered through 3 p.m. The selections change from day to day. On a Monday afternoon last week, spicy foods predominated.
Chana masala is chickpeas with spices, cooked in a rich, brown sauce. A mild heat hits the tongue first, followed by a wave of cloves and other piquant spices, and finishes with a fresh smack of cilantro.
The chicken jalfrezi is another buffet item with a rich, flavorful sauce. Chunks of chicken bathe in a spice-filled onion and green pepper stew. White rice with parsley is a fine accompaniment to this dish, though the homemade naan is great for sopping up the sauce, too.
Naan, a traditional flat bread no Pakistani or Indian restaurant can go without, is served freshly baked with the rich aroma of butter reaching the nose as the plate is served. Karahi King’s naan is a bit crispier than naan you might find elsewhere. It comes in various flavors such as sesame or garlic and can be stuffed with ground lamb and herbs (keem naan, $2.49).
Nearly all the buffet selections may be ordered as a menu item. Away from the buffet line, perhaps the most popular menu items are the kabobs — meat cooked, but not served, on a skewer. The kabob roll ($2.99) is a Pakistani-inspired wrap with chicken and veggies rolled in naan. The seekh kabob ($1.50) is served with slices of tomato, onion and dipping sauces. If you want a shot of sweetness, go for the sticky, dark red tamarind sauce, or, for something milder, the flavored yogurt sauce might help take the bite off an accompanying dish with heat.
If you’re looking for something refreshing, though, the mango lassi ($2.99) is the way to go. A cold drink made of yogurt and mango, it’s a sweet, slightly tart, luxuriously thick smoothie that works as a dessert or even a tasty treat all by itself.
Running a restaurant is notoriously hard work, but Farooq Cheema said he loves the food and wants to introduce others to it. His wife concurred, but for her there’s an extra incentive to running a restaurant: “It’s fun — and I don’t have to cook in my home,” she said with a laugh.
Karahi King Grill
986 Trowbridge Road, East Lansing 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday; closed Sunday (517) 333-3316