An abridged version of Trip to Pakistan appeared in Deccan Herald, Bangalore, in July 2007
Food, oh Food!:
I love local street food. I have lived in Delhi and have done the rounds of Chandni Chowk, Fatehpuri, Karimiyas, GMW at Authority and going beyond, GT road to Ahuja Dhaba at Murthal and Puran Singh’s at Ambala. I always thought that I have had the best food imaginable but I had never been to Lahore!! And the memorable trip to Food Street in Gawalpura! A plain, non-descript street during daytime and when the traffic is blocked at either end of the street after 7pm, the Street bristles with gastronomic activities till the wee hours of the morning. Eateries on either side of the street spread the rickety tables and chairs on the street and all are welcome to partake of the delicious food simmering on tawas, kadais, tandoors etc. We settle down next to the favourite “restaurant” of our hosts, the greasy table just about able to accommodate the seven of us around it. The waiter tenderly wipes the greasy melamine plates with an even more greasy napkin and then follows a gourmet’s delight; mutton chaanp, mutton kadhai, seekh kabab, boti chicken….. Hot chaanps are devoured even before the naan/roti arrives from the “dhaba” next door. Yes, you can sit at one restaurant and order dishes from others as well. Just like being in a food court but being served centrally on your table and paying all through one single bill. So it is the special naan/roti from restaurant A and the heavenly lassi from stall B. 30 minutes later and we are all done and ready to go. Hoping I do not expose my ill-manners I discreetly peek at the bill lying on the table. Pak Rupees 1200 odd for a banquet for seven ravenous men!! That’s about the price one pays for one dish at Dum Pukht at Welcomgroup hotels and that too for a dish that is not as lip-smackingly delicious.
The following day’s dinner at Fazal Haq’s, a long drive from where we were staying, is as delightful, this time the dinner is washed down by bowlfuls of Peshawari Kahwa, a lovely warm, light green tea sweetened by gud and garnished with a twist of lime. “Aids digestion, janaab!” I do not know about that, but even a post-prandial cognac never tasted better! And all through the meal we were entertained by “Indian” songs being screened on one of the walls of the restaurant. My hosts were having a most enjoyable time recognizing the actors/movies/singers etc. We, the omniscient Indians, were required to play the referees in their guessing games. As if any of us knew any of the small time actors being betted upon. (Atul Agnihotri, who?) As we were leaving the restaurant a largish glow sign displaying a cheerful portrait of Janab Fazal Haq on the kerbside seems to be asking us to return soonest. Fazal Haq bhaisaheb, you bet I will!!
The street side action does not stop at non-veg food. Butt Sweets and Bakeries branch at Gawalpura in the Walled City has this high shelf jutting out into the street. On the shelf are three of the largest paraats I have ever seen, each a diameter of at least 5 feet. Moong daal halwa in one, pethe ka halwa in the other but I fall for the contents of the third one: creamy gajar ka halwa with tons of khoya and, hold your breath, slices of boiled eggs. 200 grams of this sinfully delicious stuff (Pak Rs 22; INR Rs 17) and you wonder if this is what they serve in jannat for breakfast, lunch and dinner! I had my eyes on the action across the street. There was this hole-in-the-wall shop with a frontage of barely 3-4 feet. An army of a million was climbing over each other to access person sitting across the counter clamoring for whatever the shop was serving. A discreet enquiry with our host for the day, the local rep Furqaan, revealed that hot samosas were being served. I had given up on getting hold of one of the riot causing savouries till Furqaan displayed the South Asian ingenuity once again (a small tip to the Butt’s waiter boy did the trick) and in a trice each one of us was gobbling the tastiest samosas we have ever had (my Tamil and Telugu colleagues second my views). I am not a specialist food reviewer, but I would certainly like to read how a specialist would describe the thinnest crust of delicately fried casing of maida holding just the right amount of mashed potatoes seasoned with the perfect mix of salt, jeera and haldi!
The finale at the Food Street has to be the paan served so endearingly by the barely-out-of-teens boy who delicately rolls up the dark green leaves laden with thick chutney and gulkand (having lived for five years in Varanasi famed for its delicate green pan leaves and the gentle light katha-chuna-geeli supari combo I decide to opt of this) and dextrously spins his right arm and inserts the beeda between the patrons lips! “Waah, waah”, go the recipients demanding an encore in terms of a beeda getting packed (for a post breakfast round, maybe). The stylishness apart, my favourite panwallah Keshav of Lanka, Varanasi fame would squirm not only at this foppish gesture and also the recipe of the paan! The post Fazal Haq paan is a repeat save for the fact that the paan “provider” was a burly youth perhaps 25 kgs overweight!! Not that it deterred my Indian colleagues. More power to the paan-South Asian camaraderie!!
Islam taboos consumption of alcohol. And Pakistan is a dry state. We all know that. None of us had the guts to carry a bottle into Pakistan. (Not that we were checked at the customs). But mercifully for the tipplers Pakistan does not prohibit consumption of alcohol provided you are a non-Pakistani and a non-Muslim and you are consuming the daaru within the confines of your room. The mini bar is bereft of any trace of alcohol, that’s the first thing I notice when I check it. The room service brochure has an elaborate list of alcohol varieties being served: neatly classified under the heads of three local breweries (yes local! ) and under the sub-heads whisky, rum, gin, vodka, beer etc. There is a quaint line that tells you that alcohol will be served only between 8 am and 8 pm (Whisky on the rocks with toast and eggs sunny-side up anyone for breakfast?). But helpfully the literature also adds that should you wish to have alcohol after the official hours to speak with the room service manager. So, at midnight, after I check in I call this guy and he cheerfully wants to know what I wish to have. I ask for dark rum (Old Monk being my favourite). He informs me that dark rum is not available and I should opt for whisky, gin or beer. He also helpfully reiterates the names of the 3 distilleries whose outputs are on offer. Murree Distillery is the only one I have heard about (I am a quiz guy and I have heard of Murree distillery as being the oldest in Pakistan and being owned by Parsis) and I confidently order Murree whisky leaving the choice of the brand to the room service manager. Pronto the room service boy arrives with a tray full of two wine glasses, a bucketful of ice and an opaque polythene bag clad bottle of Murree Whisky supine on the tray!! And the whisky was wonderful. More power to the Murree Bawaji’s! The bottle cost me an equivalent of INR Rs 425. And 44% v/v!! What value for money!
A quick visit to Shalimar Garden on a rain soaked late afternoon and we are ready to do some shopping for our families. Our host for the day drives us (in his Suzuki Mehran, the car familiar to Indians as Maruti 800) to the edge of a non-descript lane and we find our way through the puddles of water to the shop selling women’s suit materials. Shelves upon shelves are laden with excellent quality cotton material and bolts of silk (mostly Chinese). Perhaps the first time in decades I was buying suit material and I had a blast choosing from the wonderful colours and designs. I ended up richer by four suit pieces and poorer by pak Rs 2100 (approx INR 1650). I was feeling elated at the splendid buy and ended up buying something for myself from the neighbouring shop! That is something I have never done in my trips, shopping for myself. Got hold of two Pathan suits for myself! Wonder when I am ever going to wear them. Maybe my next trip to Pakistan.