Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

So much more than foodie factor

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I am not a foodie in the sense of the word my friends Majid Sheikh and Irfan Hussain are. Of these two gastronomes, I know that Irfan is also one master chef whose conjurings have to be tried one day. These two good men travel around the world sampling good food and drink and know where to eat the best ravioli in Brindisi or stroganoff in Vladivastock, or goulash in Budapest. I love food to the extent of it being available at home or only a short drive away. And I can happily put away a plate of daal-chaval or fish baked with blue cheese and garlic vinegar, or fish cooked in a rich sauce of yogurt and spices or fish in any way it can be cooked.

When travelling abroad, I just take what is on offer. Except once while travelling round Bedfordshire with friends Mike and Maggie we ended up eating three meals daily (besides breakfast) because they are real junkies who had a copy of Good Food and Drink Guide in their car which we dutifully followed. We ended up dining in some really ancient inns. The refreshments and food were excellent. The Guide really knows its business.

Europe is a place where you can never miss good bread: rye, wheat, barley etc. Pakistan is another ball game. Once away from home, I am appalled by the flour people consume. It is either nothing but pure white or it is old chapattis recycled to powder form. It tastes horrible. In Sindh they have this rubbish everyone calls ‘special atta’ which is special only in its horridness. The chapatti it turns out is rubbery and leaves an acrid aftertaste in the mouth. Yet I have seen it being consumed in the home of even those who could have their own from their farms. This leaves me wondering why they simply don’t shift to rice flour chapattis. They are popular in Lower Sindh and are very good, mainly because they are pure and not recycled.

Besides the wheat flour, I have no complaints. The Sindhis make excellent squash (tinda bhujia) and their recipe of okra is simply out of this world. In Sindh, my friends know they can feed me tinda morning, evening and night and alternate it either with okra or fish. It has developed into a joke with many of them. As for meat, many years ago, I wrote that if the slaughtered goat were still alive to see the Sindhi’s dressing it, it would simply give up the ghost because of shame and grief. The Sindhis are no butchers; they simply do not know how to dress meat. Thank heavens, I am no meat eater or I would die of starvation in Sindh!

In the interior of Sindh, Sukkur is a good place to eat around Clock Tower. But Larkana is famine area. The food is universally horrid, horrid, horrid. Ask for mixed vegetables and the man will bring you a plate of curried potatoes. Question him and he says its potatoes mixed with potatoes, and what the hell else to I want. In brief, Sindh is a good place to go dieting. Unless of course you have friends who will cook you tinda. And so too Dadu and Jacobabad.

The only people who know how to do meat are the Baloch. They do it so lovingly, I am certain the animal forgives them for killing it. And then they cook the slow roasted sajji with unbelievable love and care standing beside it even in hot blazing sunshine. Or they cook what they call roghan gosht which is actually a rich curried mutton. I still remember the taste of it from 1985. Since this is not my plate of meat, I cannot really comment on it, but I think the Pathans have adopted this as namkeen.

Of all the places in Pakistan, I can count some cities where one’s palate is treated well. Lahore, is tops followed by Peshawar where in Namak Mandi the old sinner called Charsi still makes the best barbecue in the whole world. He beats Lahori chefs hollow. By the way, charsi really is a charsi (hashish smoker) and he was a charsi back in the late 1970s when he had only a small spit and would begin at around sunset to be done in a couple of hours. Now, he has a full-fledged restaurant and has spawned a host of clones all calling themselves Asli (real) Charsi Tikka Shop.

Everywhere across Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa, there are eateries that offer meat dishes: indifferently prepared shish kebab and the horrid chapli kebab which I haven’t eaten since 1978. That every eater of these latter does not get food poisoning is to the credit of our cast iron gizzards.

Karachi which only had Burnes Road kebab shops to be proud of also has come of age in the food department. But if you ask me, one sampling of the Burnes Road fare was enough to last you a lifetime: I tried it once in February 1979 and never again. Of course in those prehistoric days there were those ubiquitous Irani Cafes and their brain masala, bhoona gosht and fried fish and what have you. Excellent fare for the price, that was. I hear the old Irani Cafes are no longer there, or at least are disappearing.

Until some years ago when Usmania Restaurant opened in Regal Chowk, Quetta was a nightmare. Every restaurant served chicken pieces that measured a foot across. These were the remains of layers that had spent a lifetime giving us eggs and then, when their ovaries had dried up, were sacrificed at the altar of or gluttony. These huge, leathery items had the taste and smell of rotting cardboard. Everywhere you went in Quetta, this was all you could get in various forms – one that was even an affront to the good old sajji. Back in the early 1990s, I remember reaching the verge of starvation in Quetta.

Then I became friends with the kind, generous and truly wonderful Sardar Naseer Tareen at whose door I could and still can arrive unannounced and my bag will be put in one of the rooms and a place laid out at the table without a question. I can stay for as long as I wish, no questions about impending departure. When someday I have to escape the law, I will hide myself away in Sardar sahib’s home in Quetta’s Railway Colony. This remarkable man is vegetarian and his spread is a delight for someone like me. Meeting him even after years is like having just walked out of the room for a few minutes because the conversation resumes as if it was broken for a short while only and the food continues without getting cold.

But now, Usmania and also Serena take care of the hungry traveler in Quetta. Other than that, the only way to survive in Balochistan is to know the army and have access to their messes. Foisting yourself upon a Baloch is suicide for a vegetarian. They know nothing but sajji. My friends Munir Musiani and Saifullah Zehri, the best of men in Moola, were ashamed to tell our hosts that I ate no meat even as they stuffed themselves with great gobs of sajji and I ate my bhindi. That having been said, I know of no other Baloch delicacy.


Though I have partaken liberally of Chitrali hospitality, I know little of their cuisine. But Hunza and Gojal are great places for local dishes. Their leavened breads are varied and delicious and their malida beats Kashmiri harisa any time.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,

15 Comments:

At June 26, 2013 at 10:51 AM, Blogger Kausar Bilal said...

Nice to know about the eating nature of all provinces of Pakistan. Great documentation.

 
At June 26, 2013 at 4:43 PM, Blogger Shahid Saeed said...

I am having issues with forgiving you for blaspheming against Chapli Kababas.

 
At June 26, 2013 at 4:46 PM, Anonymous Jamshed said...

I thought white meat cooked in lamb fat (specially in Pashin) was famous?

 
At June 26, 2013 at 4:49 PM, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

Our finest food heritage through local travel. But you seem to be so selective.

 
At June 26, 2013 at 5:05 PM, Blogger Hassan Belal said...

Pure blasphemy. As a Pakistani and a foodie, I am compelled to write this strongly worded note of protest to the author. I could wax poetic about all the brilliant cuisines of Pakistan that the author has glossed over and omitted, but that would be pointless.

Suffice to say, dear sir, I hope you choke on a bad piece of bleu cheese. Or baguette. Whichever tickles your tonsils.

 
At June 26, 2013 at 9:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You have missed out Punjab. What about 'saag and maki ki rooti' and dal that used to be served on Pepal leaves in Multan.

 
At June 26, 2013 at 9:46 PM, Anonymous Javed Khan said...

Simple aaloo gosht will do for me. Is there anyone anywhere in Pakistan who has not eaten this? I don't think so.

 
At June 27, 2013 at 1:51 AM, Blogger Khalid Saeed said...


"Ask for mixed vegetables and the man will bring you a plate of curried potatoes. Question him and he says its potatoes mixed with potatoes".

Well they may have a point like Faraz said,
"Nasha Bharta hai sharabeen jo sharaboon main mileen". :)

 
At June 27, 2013 at 10:54 AM, Anonymous Rafay Bin Ali said...

Lately I have been relishing in a sea of succulent food items. Nothing can beat the foodie factor.

 
At June 27, 2013 at 1:59 PM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Shahid Saeed, A thousand apologies. But since my friend Rauf who does the TV show that I've never watched had an ALMIGHTY case of food poisoning from eating C Kebas somewhere n Nowshera, I have been terrified.

 
At June 27, 2013 at 2:01 PM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Jamshed, That is what I mean when I make the Pathans angry by saying they don't know the first thing about meat. Why, they call fat spin vakha - white meat. For crying out loud! And Chaman was where I made some Pathans in a restaurant very, very angry.

 
At June 27, 2013 at 2:03 PM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

To those who object about my lack of knowledge/interest in food all around, I reiterate that I am no foodie.

 
At June 27, 2013 at 8:55 PM, Anonymous Saima Ashraf said...

Chaati ki Lassi from my area (South Punjab) is second to none. Saag with Makhan is a dish you will never forget (available only in winter).

 
At June 27, 2013 at 8:55 PM, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

How diverse taste and how wonderful to have tasted so much. Great article.

 
At June 28, 2013 at 1:22 PM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Saima, Saag and makai di roti is ok, but not my hot favourite. Tell me where I should come for the chaati di lassi, though.

 

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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand


Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days