From the outside, Mohammadpur’s Selim Kebab Ghar - a place which has become a part of Dhaka folklore - may come across as shabby to many first-timers.
Even with the mouth-watering smell of barbecued meat and spices emanating from the tin-roofed eatery, people with a delicate sense of cleanliness and hygiene may think twice before stepping inside.
But, once you enter, it’s a different world altogether. The place is so swarmed with customers every day during business hours - from 5 pm to 12 am - that food enthusiasts may sometimes have to wait for hours to get a table.
It is indeed a tiny place, as no more than 18 people can sit and eat there at a time.
The restaurant was well known in Mohammadpur and its surrounding areas, but thanks to food vloggers and foodies interacting with each other on social media, it has become a household name in Dhaka and the rest of the country.
Banker Fahad Bin Rafique, a lifelong resident of Mohammadpur and a regular at the restaurant, explained what sets Selim Kebab Ghar apart from other kebab joints in the city.
“I have been eating here since I was a little boy. They don’t mince the meat like the others. The taste is very different and it never changed,” he said.
With a 44-year legacy and immense success on its back, the restaurateur never even considered putting his establishment through the modernisation process as he wants to preserve its ‘authenticity’.
He expanded it a little though, and it can now serve up to 300 people a day.
“All we did is add two nearby annexes so that people who came looking for food could sit during peak hours,” said Md Liaqat Khan, the current proprietor of the eatery.
Liaqat’s father, a broken Urdu-speaking Md Selim Khan who had migrated from India’s Bihar before the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, founded the place in 1978. Liaqat took over after Selim, who named the small-scaled restaurant after himself, passed away in 1993. Liaqat was just 14 then.
THE LEGEND OF SELIM AND HIS RECIPES
“My father [Selim] got the recipes from a Bihar-based Hakim [a physician using traditional remedies for Muslims in the Indian sub-continent], and his life was never the same after that,” Liaqat said.
The legend surrounding Selim and how he got a hold of the recipes is quite a remarkable story.
According to Liaqat, his father Selim, who had owned a small roadside convenience store in the older part of Dhaka, moved back to Bihar after Bangladesh became independent.
He started another business selling fried beed tripe and beef shank stew, popularly known as Nihari, there. The business didn’t pick up as much as Selim had hoped and he was already considering moving back to Dhaka to try his luck here once again.
One day, the Hakim approached him to mention that his foods “weren’t that great” and Selim must see him “to change his fortune.”
When they met again, the Hakim gave him a piece of paper which had detailed instructions on how to prepare different types of kebabs and meat patties, commonly known as ‘Chap’ -- another immensely successful Selim Kebab Ghar delicacy.
The Hakim taught Selim about the mixture and application of spices to the meat.
“My father learnt the preparation of kebabs and Chaps first hand from the Hakim, along with the quantities and the mixture of the blends of spices we still use,” Liaqat said.
The same Hakim, as the legend goes, promised Selim that if he followed the recipes, no one in the kebab business could compete with him.
Selim had moved back to Dhaka six months after this encounter and subsequently founded the kebab eatery.
SO, WHAT’S IN THE RECIPE?
Quite understandably, Liaqat wouldn’t divulge that.
The 30-year-veteran in the kebab business cited a promise his father made to the Hakim that he would never reveal the recipe to anyone outside the close-knitted family.
Selim died 14 years after he established the eatery, but he passed on his knowledge of the secret blend of spices and the marinating process to his son.
Though Liaqat had to scale back his involvement in the business considerably due to the massive reconstruction surgery he underwent after a road crash in 2010, he still insists on marinating the meat himself as he does not want others to learn his ‘secret recipe’.
“I have 24 staff on the payroll, but only I am allowed to marinate the meat before my staff put them in the oven or barbecue,” he said.
“Only my wife knows the blend, and the list ends there.”
He, however, confirmed that the ‘authentic’ blend he uses is a mixture of 33 different types of spices and he never applies any artificial colouring, baking soda, tasting salts or chemicals during the marinating process.
Liaqat puts special attention to beef skewers, a Selim Kebab Ghar’s speciality known as 'seekh kebab', an immensely popular item among meat lovers throughout the Indian sub-continent and the rest of the world.
Liaqat prepares the meat himself. The usual process involves finely mincing the meat, but Liaqat’s preparation is slightly different from other kebab makers in Dhaka.
“I don’t finely mince the meat. Rather, I prefer smaller pieces on a skewer,” he said.
The preparation resembles the Brazilian-style barbecue beef skewers, which are known for their juiciness and unique taste.
Liaqat said he only uses meat from locally-bred cows.
“We never use meat from hybrid cows or processed meat. No matter what, we use meat from cows which were bred locally,” he said.
THE STATE OF BUSINESS
In short, business is booming.
Md Faisal, a Mirpur resident, said he learnt about the place after reading and watching the reviews of different food vloggers on social media.
“I have come here many times. The quality is excellent and most importantly, it’s affordable,” he said. The most popular item, a skewer of seekh kebab costs Tk 120, and the rest of the meat items, like chicken patties, fried brain and chicken tikka, cost around Tk 100 per portion.
For side orders, luchis, a popular deeply fried flatbread, costs Tk 5 each.
During the week, the restaurant prepares food for around 300-350 people, while on the weekends, it caters to around 500 people.
[Writing in English by Adil Mahmood]