The greatest celebration and reflection of the cultural melting pot of Pakistan is undoubtedly its cuisine. It is the paramount pleasure of the Pakistani people. Cooking, feeding, sharing recipes and consuming food makes up a huge part of our lives. My experience of growing up in Pakistan has been one filled with food, flavor and an intense adoration of hospitality. This is a country with unique flavor that is steeped in historical cooking methods, spices and local seasonal produce and rich aromas. In Pakistan food is always treated with respect, as is the mealtime.
Karachi and Lahore are the two main culinary capitals. An omnipresent friendly rivalry exists between these two cities with regards to food, culture and fashion. I myself, being an ardent ‘Karachite’, find myself always taking sides. The flavors and food of the two cities are as unique and different as the local influences that have shaped the delicacies found there.
Karachi is home to many ethnically diverse communities, ranging from local Sindhis and Memons, to an immigrant population such as people from Hyderabad, Delhi, Bhopal and other parts of North West India, who brought their cuisines with them after partition; and these later fused with local Sindhi food, creating the definitive Karachi flavour. Sindhi food itself is rich and highly aromatic. This is a cuisine that has historical roots in the Indus Valley civilisations and other ancient civilisations that existed in this part of the country. There is also a strong influence from Arab cuisine in Sindh.
However, Lahore is perhaps more of a culinary center, with different cuisines from all over Pakistan available in the city as well as its own local Punjabi and Mughal dishes in abundance.
I’ve been to Lahore many times but my last visit to the city was to stay with my cousins, and with a specific culinary mission in mind; to experience the food scene in Lahore as much as possible in a few days. My eyes were immediately treated to a feast for the senses as I was whisked away from the airport to the Old City of Lahore and on to the stunningly awe-inspiring Lahore Fort and Badshahi mosque, through the Roshnai Gate’s tiny door, which takes you into the Walled City.
Once the home of the nobles of the Mughal dynasty, then later turned into a red light district by the British, history still haunts the contemporary Walled City. However as you enter this historical space now, it’s the aromas of smoky barbecues and freshly made bread that hit you first, as simmering rich spicy curries bubble away in the background.
The key attraction in the Food Street in the Walled City is the well-known restaurant Cucoo’s Den, owned by artist Iqbal Hussain, who has supported the retired dancing girls of Lahore through his charity and by selling his art in his restaurant. The restaurant itself has been around for 22 years and has contributed to lifting the image of the area and leading to its development into the ‘food street’ that it is today. The nine-inch steep steps that lead up five flights of stairs to the roof are worth everystep as the views are truly spectacular; iconic views of the Badshahi mosque, the Lahore Fort and the Minar-e-Pakistan far beyond in the night lit sky.
Lahore is visually stunning. I found myself intoxicated by the culmination of the sounds of traffic from afar, Mughal architecture, the sweet smoky aroma of barbecue combined with the wafts of agarbatti (incense). In the background I could hear the faint beating of the tabla and the chattering of people taking in the scene, as I was. I watched in amazement as baskets were lowered down to the kitchen quickly to pull up food to the rooftop from the ground floor kitchen, used in the old days to bring up shopping, laundry and the likes. I was there early, and started the night at 7.30pm with gulab jamans (milk cardamom sweets), firni (ground rice pudding) and kulfi (rich saffron and cardamom ice cream). Lahore comes alive post 9pm though, in an eating extravaganza which lasts until at least 2am.
From the new refurbished ‘food street I moved on the old but real Food Street behind the haveli’s (houses) – so much so is this in blatant contrast, dusty, crowed, with daredevil motorbikes racing through, the smells of exhaust fumes and tantalizing aromas of grilled meats, daal tikis (lentil kebabs), chicken and paiy (goat’s trotter curry) wafting through the air. I was greeted with such hospitality by the Phaja Siri Paiy restaurant, where I was served warming spicy goat trotter’s curry with fresh naans, a Pakistani delicacy that is cooked for up to 17 hours to achieve a rich, deeply spicy, rather sticky broth topped with garam masala. Nothing beats soft warm naans soaked in the sauce and eaten warm…Next I walked through an array of cheap street stalls of tawa chicken, keema ki tiki, chicken tikkas and khikar kay channay (chickpeas eaten cold made without any oil) – through all the hustle and bustle of a noisy busy narrow street flanked with every kind of Pakistani street food, I found myself eventually into one of the many small old established musical instrument stores which support Lahore’s red light district dancing girl’s musicians – beautiful sitars, tablas, pianos, violins, guitars – what an unexpected area to find these, here I purchased a violin for my daughter within 10 minutes, from a man who came from three generations of ustads (teachers of music and dance).
My food night had only just begun, and at 9pm I was driven through Mall road, which is back to back with beautiful colleges and universities, such as the National College of Arts, Punjab University, Aichinson, Government College – Lahore is a seat of learning and well established educational institutions. I was whisked passed the edges of Anarkali bazaar where I found myself around the Gaddafi Stadium which is surrounded by an array of food places, each proudly displaying not just all that Lahore has to offer, but the whole of Pakistan. This is a real celebration of every provincial cuisine of the country. Each and every eatery is heaving with people, the air is filled with aromatic smoke that can only be described as the essence of Pakistani food. I eat at Dera, (which means an important destination, within a village) this is a slightly commercial place but it still keeps to the authenticity of the cuisine. With traditional outdoor seating of charpais (jute woven beds) and low jute chairs, the manager knows of my arrival and treats us to a the best of Lahore and general Pakistani cuisine – the ever famous Sarson ka Saag (mustard greens stir fried), Makai ki roti (maize and corn flatbread), Sajji (Balouchi stlye whole leg of lamb or chicken spit roasted) , Angori Chicken (chicken curry sweetened by grapes), Mutton chops, Malai tikkas (boneless chicken tikkas softened with cream marinade) and soft sesame seed naans. With live table music and the chattering of happy Lahoris, whose greatest pleasure is eating and enjoying each other’s company – you can see a real passion for food and its enjoyment. I am treated by getting a personal tour of the open air kitchen and a chat about the secrets of restaurant cooking with the head chef – finally we are told our meal is complimentary – the hospitability is surreal, I always marvel at it when I go home to Pakistan, I did always take it for granted when I lived here. And it is now 11pm – and I know the night is still young….
By now I am stuffed, and my cousin’s friend joins us – he is the epitome of ‘Lahori-ness’. You name what you think is the best place for a dish and he will tell you that you have it all wrong and take you straight to the one place you’d never knew existed. This man is a Lahori, flesh and blood a man of the land. He lives and breathes food. He takes us to the most obscure and hidden away places for what seemed like a race through Lahore – and I was told I had only scratched the surface. Taken away to Gawal Mandi, a real back of beyond area with make shift road-side restaurants for the everyday man – I was taken to a place that serves a Kashmiri-style stew made of beef, called Hareesa – it’s slow cooked with wheat and lentil, finished with ghee, spinach, small beef kebabs and eaten with what to me were the best naans I have ever had – made in a wood fire tandoor – the owner who is the son of the founder of the restaurants, a humble happy man, himself makes the finished dish himself. With pride he explains how Hareesa includes 30 different masalas and takes up to 6 hours of slow cooking.
It is now 1am, I am now struggling to keep my eyes open let alone force another morsel of food down my throat. Yet I am strangely exhilarated by this food adventure and a face of Lahore that I had never seen before, in the company of proud Lahori’s – something kept me going. Our last visit for the night was at a place called PC Barbecue – yet again a road-side unassuming place, with plastic garden furniture placed on the pavements, all choc-a-block with customers. Here the owner greets us knowing our friend, treats us to the most incredible Malai fish tikkas I have ever eaten – I force fed these as I would never forgive myself from experiencing the cotton soft flesh, the simple elegant flavour and surprisingly very mild spice. With my last bite, I knew it was time to call it a night – falling deep into a food coma on the way back to my cousin’s home, I think I was ready for my bed….
The next day I woke up feeling even more full than the night before but determined to enjoy a few more food experiences before spending quality time with family I did a whirlwind visit to Mohammadi Nihari, boasting the best nihari in Lahore, a quick taste of a Lahore speciality of Murgh Choolay at Shahi Murgh Choolay and finally ending with a Lahore version of Falooda, a arrowroot noodle topped with sugar syrup and sweet cooked thickened milk called Khoya, It was now evident I had out done my capacity for consumption. The night ended with a takeaway of authentic Lahori Tawa fish and Lahori fish, which fried in a chickpea batter, much like an English fish and chips but of the spice and chickpea variety! And finally, I couldn’t leave Lahore with some crunchy hot Jalebi’s (sweet syrup infused doughnuts)…
This short trip only just touches the surface of a food adventure in Lahore. It is only the beginning of an exploration of this fantastically exciting culinary city. A brief culinary visit like this has always left me wanting more, the need to return in a hurry, to spend much more time, speak to many more people, learn a lot more and I feel that even then the secrets of the city of such beauty and flavour would not remain explored in its entirety in my lifetime – and that excites and challenges me.
The question is, would I still go back to my childhood city wars between Lahore and Karachi, might is be possible that I may see Lahore with such new sights and be swayed to change my opinion of the best city in Pakistan? This remains to be seen, Lahore has architectural beauty and endless food inspiration but Karachi has my beloved Arabian seashore and the aroma of the dusty desert earth I know so well. There is much to explore in Karachi from a culinary point of view.
But for now I say, I now take no sides, but I just know Pakistan is a country waiting to be discovered, explored and experienced, even by a Pakistani, born and raised as myself; my eyes are now open in a way I never imagined to a world of sensory, culinary discovery which tantalized the mind and body and definitely your taste buds.