A journey through Pakistan on an empty stomach

Warning: This is a picture post, salivate at your own risk!

Succuelent kebabs
Succuelent kebabs

“You will be surrounded by delicious food!” was the unanimous opinion when friends and family came to know that I would be travelling to Pakistan for a week. Despite the media induced frenzy on security issues which, I must admit, creates certain trepidation, everyone close to me was more excited about the fact that I would be gorging on some wonderful food. I must confess, being a foodie, that even I was looking forward to the food and exploring the streets and roads of Karachi and Lahore.

The night I landed in Karachi, I decided to skip dinner as it was already too late and I had a long day ahead the next day. On reaching the hotel, I was transported to a world that I thought never existed; the hotel lobby was buzzing with activity, there was a sunken island café in the middle of the massive lobby around which there were loungers and sofas where groups of smartly dressed boys and girls sat smoking sheesha, there was a singer belting out popular Bollywood songs in one corner and the whole ambiance seemed right out of any popular hotel in either Delhi or Mumbai. I was home!

The morning breakfast saw me skipping the continentals and start off with Halwa Poori the staple breakfast food of Pakistan – the poori, which is the same as our bhatura, is served with a kesar laden halwa rich with ghee and dry fruits. The combination was extremely oily for me and I moved to my next dish of Ful Mudammas which was an interesting Chola soup very similar to the tex-mex chilli where one could garnish it with different elements. This, curiously, was also quite similar to the Bengali ghughni in concept but the taste was very different, hearty, spicy and wholesome.

Thereafter, I tried the Paya Soup and the Chicken Nihari. Both the dishes were piping hot   – I garnished them with some chilly, coriander and lime juice and the resultant burst of flavours was intense. I kept on relishing the dishes despite the heat. Perfect, lovely, delicious, spicy, rich soups to start off the day with!

Inspite of a super hectic meeting line up, my coordinator in Karachi was kind enough to take me to a popular barbecue joint in Karachi called Bar-B-Q Tonight. This probably was the biggest revelation of the entire trip. The barbecues in Pakistan are generally open pit barbecues with a small chimney at one end which keeps the coal alight. Here we tried Afghani Tikka, Chargha Chicken and Mutton Chops. It would be very difficult for me to describe each dish here, but the standout dish was most definitely the Afghani Tikka which had a strong garlic flavour with salt and some herbs as marinade – the tikka was succulent and finger licking good. The other two dishes were not bad either – the chargha chicken had a very crisp and savoury exterior and a soft, juicy piquant interior and the mutton chops were flattened pieces of meat grilled to a crispy perfection – each one a winner in its own right; but for me the taste I brought home was definitely the Afghani chicken. A quick note here about the Pakistani naans, which were served with these dishes They are quite different to our Indian thin version and tend to be very thick and heavy. They resemble somewhat the bakarkhanis and are usually ordered with heavy curries.

The dinner was a bit lacklustre – Chapli Kebab with some massive rotis. The spices were coarse and I somehow didn’t relish them coming in my mouth with each bite. Once again, the atmosphere was abuzz with a live musician belting out numbers from popular Hindi movies. Bollywood is really big in Pakistan!

The next day, my standout experience was a visit to a food alley called Boat Basin where barbecues and Nihari shops line up on an entire stretch of the road. Big dewans are laid out with cushions and side pillows outside each shop and people have the option of either sitting at the table or lie down on the dewans and dine with their friends. Each shop also provides sheesha to those interested in a quick smoke. In Pakistan, it is quite evident that sheesha replaces alcohol for the kicks. The aromas wafting in the air here are droolicious and one feels hungry just by looking at the myriad of dishes displayed in front of each shop. I also saw some biryani joints, many paan shops, juice corners, shawarma kiosks and some momo and pasta places. This place is quite buzzing and one can enjoy a nice kebab here lying on these big dewans till late at night along with some flavoured sheesha.

Lahore was one place I was looking forward to quite eagerly. In many ways Lahore is a sister city to Delhi. Victorian architecture and monuments line the city, there is still an old walled city with food offerings which can give Old Delhi a run for its money. Surprisingly it is also one of the cleanest cities I have seen in our region and full credits here do go to the city administration for making the efforts to maintain cleanliness.

I was reminiscing my childhood days and happened to mention a multani delicacy called Katlammas to my driver and to my surprise, he brought me some homemade ones the very next day. Katlammas are our answer to the Italian pizza; fried thick bread topped with savoury toppings of tomato paste, onion garlic, anardana, nuts and herbs. It is a very heavy and complete meal by itself. I am told that a sweeter version of this dish is also served at weddings in Kashmir.

Lahore was an absolute delight. Here, I tried Kulfa at Benazir Kulfa, Gol Gappas at Liberty Market, Italian cuisine at a chic BYOB place called Café Aylanto and even discovered a secret bar inside a regular room at a big hotel where I had a 12 year old Pakistani Single Malt from the house of Murree Brewery.

The stand out on this leg of my trip was my meal at a place called Lakshmi Chowk where we went to a roadside dhaba called Tuba Chanawala. The dhaba  has only one dish on its menu – chanas which are mixed with chicken, lamb keema or koftas as per client’s choice and served  with massive tandoori rotis or naans. Extremely soft white chanas in light, flavourful gravy, the choice of meat adds a different dimension to the dish. We lapped it up in no time with some chaach and headed to another old time favourite of Lahore known as Chaman Ice Creams. They serve hand churned ice creams a la Taj Ice Cream of Mumbai. I tried the Tutti Frutti ice cream here which I must say reminded me of Taj’s soft and creamy ice creams. A must try while you are in Lahore.

This visit to Pakistan would not have been complete without the super hospitality extended to me by the people there. My co-ordinators and drivers in both Karachi and Lahore went out of their way to show me the best places in both the cities In Lahore, I was treated to home cooked Katlammas, Kulfi,  Sugarcane juice, Nankhatais (with roasted almonds – yum !) and a bagful of pre-partition and post-partition stories. There is a certain longing in the eyes of the common man on the streets to know more about their neighbour – India, roam on the streets of Delhi and experience the foods from our vast country the same way there is an innate desire amongst Indians to know more about Pakistan.

To sum it up in the words of a friend “Taqdeer ne dooriyan bada di dost; varna dilon  kee najdeekiyan aaj bhi hain!” (Destiny has increased the distance o friend, or else the hearts are still close together).

 

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