Pakistani chicken jalfrezi: discover what makes it different

Jalfrezi is a popular style of curry in Indian restaurants across the Western world. But is it really Indian? Or is jalfrezi a Pakistani dish?

I was recently searching for a chicken jalfrezi recipe and easily found many for this popular curry. Amongst the results I noticed something interesting though. A number of authors refer to their jalfrezi recipe as Pakistani.

I’ve made jalfrezi many times, but never knew there were different variants from different countries. This got me to wondering – where does jalfrezi come from? And what’s different about a Pakistani chicken jalfrezi?

So I went through 17 different recipes to get to the bottom of this fabulous curry – it’s heritage, regional variations and more.

The history of jalfrezi

Like so many dishes born long ago, the exact history of jalfrezi is unclear. But the theory behind its creation is fascinating.

It’s thought the dish was actually created for the British during the time of the Raj of the Indian subcontinent. The British would hold large feasts which often resulted in lots of roast meat being leftover.

Rather than waste the expensive and tasty meat they had their local cooks prepare a dish of leftover meat with chili and other local spices. Jalfrezi was born as a result.

Chicken jalfrezi is just one version. Historically it would’ve been made to use up any leftover roast meat – beef, lamb, other poultry and more.

A particularly interesting aspect of the creation of jalfrezi is the fact that Hindus traditionally regard leftovers as polluted and impure. Referred to as Uchchhista, eating leftovers is seen by some as revolting. So without the Brits asking for it, jalfrezi may never have been created.

The dish has since become more popular across India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, but is instead made with fresh meat rather than leftovers.

What’s in a chicken jalfrezi?

Most versions of a chicken jalfrezi have a fairly consistent list of ingredients. From the ones I reviewed, they all included:

  • Boneless chicken pieces
  • Tomatoes
  • Chilies
  • Onion

And most also include:

  • Bell pepper (capsicum)
  • Garlic and ginger
  • A masala (spice mix) of turmeric, coriander and cumin.

How is jalfrezi made?

A traditional jalfrezi is a little unusual in how it’s prepared.

Many of the more well known Indian curries are simmered in a sauce until the meat and/or vegetables are cooked.

A jalfrezi on the other hand, is prepared more like an Asian stir-fry. The ingredients are quickly fried in hot oil.

Perhaps because of the use of the stir frying technique, some authors recognise their recipes as having partial Chinese heritage as well. And some of these include pieces of omelette in their jalfrezi, or recommend pairing it with egg fried rice, both common in Chinese cuisine.

Regardless, because it is stir fried, jalfrezi is a typically thicker and drier than many common saucy Indian curries.

A brightly colour map of south Asia centred on India.

Indian vs Pakistani chicken jalfrezi

Even though it’s a favourite of ours, before starting this review I’d never really considered which specific cuisine jalfrezi belonged to. But a number of the authors clearly do.

Of the 17 recipes I reviewed, five or six authors identified their versions as Pakistani either in the title or their writeup. A similar number saw theirs as both Indian and Pakistani and three or four identified their recipes as Indian. The rest didn’t call out a specific nationality.

So based on these recipes I figured we might be able to differentiate a Pakistani jalfrezi from an Indian one.

Pakistani-style jalfrezi

Although there were many similarities amongst the recipes, there were also a few notable differences.

Closeup of various Indian spices, including coriander seeds, cloves, cardamom pods and ground chili.

Use of a masala

Most of the recipes include some combination of spices (a masala). Turmeric, cumin and coriander were the most common. A few also add some garam masala, a common spice blend.

Five of the recipes however don’t use any kind of spice mix. Three of these are Pakistani, one is Indian-Pakistani and one is not given a particular origin.

Is this enough to say that a Pakistani jalfrezi doesn’t use a spice masala?

Nope! Because three other Pakistani recipes use one.

The use (or not) of a masala doesn’t seem to be specific to a Pakistani jalfrezi.

Closeup of fresh onions and whole garlic bulbs.

Garlic and ginger

Of the 17 recipes, 15 include garlic and 11 of these also use ginger.

The two recipes that don’t include garlic are both Pakistani jalfrezis. That said, the rest do use it.

Three of the six that don’t use ginger are Pakistani. But again, the rest do include ginger.

So there’s no real pattern here either, just some author preference.

Cooking technique

The authors take one of two distinct approaches to cooking their jalfrezi.

A little over half use the original stir fried approach. The ingredients are fried quickly over high heat, often separately, and with limited liquid. 

The rest of the authors take a more traditional approach, frying the chicken before simmering it in the tomatoes and sometimes some additional water. This takes more time and leaves these recipes more saucy than the others.

So can we identify a Pakistani chicken jalfrezi from the use of one of these approaches?

Again, no. Some of the Pakistani recipes are stir fried and the rest are simmered. Still no luck!

Closeup of a black bowl with what might be Pakistani chicken jalfrezi with red bell peppers garnished with a green chili.

So what is a Pakistani chicken jalfrezi?

Based on these recipes I am, sadly, none the wiser.

To be fair, Indian and Pakistani food are very similar in many ways, a result of centuries of shared history and culture. So it’s possible there is no major difference, apart from the heritage of the author.

And if there’s an influence of Pakistan’s almost exclusively Muslim population, it’s not apparent amongst these recipes either.

Do you know what distinguishes a Pakistani chicken jalfrezi? Please leave a a comment below. I’d love to learn more.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Chicken jalfrezi is delicious, regardless of its heritage.

If you haven’t tried it before and you like spicy food I strongly recommend trying one of these great recipes. As far as curries go, it’s quick and easy to prepare too. And why not try a zesty Indian lime pickle with it?

And if you happen to know what makes a recipe a Pakistani chicken jalfrezi, or not, I’d love to hear from you. Please drop a comment below and let me know.

Recipes included in this review

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