At a wedding function in Lahore, Pakistan, shimmering fabrics, bright colors, maximalist jewelry and glittering makeup form a dazzling display of aesthetic maximalism. Old grudges are set aside or permanently forgotten in favor of love and blessings. Everyone knows newlyweds will need both, and so everyone is invited — and fed.
The food served is a point of pride for the hosts. This is perhaps why chicken steam roast is almost always included as a main dish. So ubiquitous is its presence that it has come to be known as shadiyon wala steam roast — shadiyon wala means “of the weddings” in Urdu — and it may just be the best thing about a Lahori wedding after the bride.
The night before the function, or while elaborate tents are being assembled and chandeliers hung, chickens are quartered, scored and marinated in yogurt, ginger, garlic and spices (red chile, turmeric and cumin, with some variations). Large chicken pieces are slowly cooked in a heavy daig, a pomegranate-shaped metal pot the size of a large cauldron.
A night of marinating and then a couple of hours of slow steaming in the daig steeps the chicken with hefty, warm flavors from the spices and citrusy freshness from coriander, another seed common in desi cooking. A weight is placed on the lid of the daig so nothing is lost, not even a little bit of steam. The result: tender, succulent, delicately but thoroughly spiced meat that falls off the bone, making it easy to eat.
Steam roast chicken’s endurance is a testament to its affordability and popularity. Perhaps this is why home cooks across Pakistan have found ways to replicate this tender, juicy, crowd-pleasing chicken. The key: using a deep stockpot placed on top of a tawa (a thin flat metal pan used for making rotis) to temper the heat long enough for the chicken to cook in its own juices and in the steam that accumulates in the pot. The tawa is a surefire way of preventing the skinless chicken from sticking to the pot or burning during the hourlong steaming process.
This recipe comes from my attempts at re-creating the steam roasts I grew up eating at the home of my phopho, a paternal aunt. The first few tries were a real test of my patience and faith. More times than I care to admit, I’d open the stockpot too soon just to make sure the chicken was OK, whatever that meant. A cloud of steam would escape in a puff, the pot cooling dramatically, and the chicken would take much longer to cook and was almost always overdone.
Then I remembered what my phopho did: While the chicken was steaming, she would peel and mandolin potatoes to fry up crispy round chips, puttering and chatting, completely engrossed in whatever it was she was talking about, almost as if nothing were on the stove. I looked away from the direct contact the low flame from my burner was making with the stockpot and put some faith in the process. It worked.