By Tim Blight
Pakistani cuisine is one of the world’s most glorious, if most underappreciated, sandwiched between the overrepresented goliaths of the Indian curry to the east and Arabic shawarma to the west. Pakistani khana seems to occupy a sweet spot between the savoury palates of Central Asia, the spicy world of South Asia, and the meat-loving Middle East.
And to be asked what my favourite Pakistani dishes are? A part of this writer jumped at the opportunity to wax lyrical about the wonders which are to be found on the road between Karachi and the Khyber. Yet another part was instantly alarmed; picking a top five means eliminating so many other worthy contenders, and how could I discriminate against the tasty morsels which I’ve devoured on my trips through this great land?
However, life is not a cake walk (pun intended), and so I set about narrowing down my five favourite Pakistani dishes. Although it pains me to knock some out (sorry khichri, your comforting savoury undertones are still in my mind), here in no particular order are my top five Pakistani cultural dishes;
I know, I know, it’s a cliche. But it’s a cliche I’ve written about many times before – such is my love for this aromatic dish layered with meat and rice. I love how versatile it is; it can be spicy, or not so much, various meats can be used (seafood biryani, anyone?), different condiments, and then there’s the whole “aloo or no aloo” debate.
In fact, so varied is the story of biryani that Pakistanis can’t even agree on who makes it better, Lahoris or Karachiites. What most can agree on is that biryani mounts a strong case for being Pakistan’s national dish.
Sure, other countries have their versions, but the favoured dish of the Mughal court holds a special place in the hearts and minds of Pakistanis both at home and abroad. From the moment that first spices start to dance on your taste buds, to the soothing cool raita, it’s no wonder this writer fell in love at first bite.
And as for which city does it better? Ahh, well the answer to that is… not in this blog!
Karahi isn’t just a tasty meal, it’s a rustic specialty. Braised mutton or chicken (occasionally beef), served in its own pan sizzling with spices and topped with lashings of coriander and shredded ginger, this is something which I love to make at home as well as order outside.
Of course, karahi isn’t just the food – it’s the name of the pan in which its cooked. Plonked in the centre of the table, with a group of friends grabbing soft, fresh naan and eating directly out of the pan, there’s something homely and comforting about this dish.
Tender morsels of meat, aromatic vegetables and masalas, it’s all there – a real go-to dish, especially in Punjab.My favourite part of any karahi is no doubt the last where, with most of the meat devoured, you savour the last of the naan by mopping up the slightly-burnt gravy from the rim of the pan. This is what dreams are made of!
Sajji exists in many forms through the Pakistan-Afghanistan border regions (and there are even similar dishes in the Arabian peninsula). But no-one nails this dish quite like the Baloch. It’s not beautiful food – but who needs beauty when you have flavour? Think of an entire goat, stuffed with rice and spices, barbecued until tender and then served with garnishing.
I hadn’t heard of sajji until 2014, a period of my life I now look upon with slight regret. When I first tasted sajji I was introduced to the chicken version (a Lahori specialty, it seems); it was later that year that I tasted the real deal. And looking back, I think it was better that way – had I tasted the goat version first, perhaps nothing would have ever matched up. My advice? Go out there and change your life; try sajji today.
Hoi Lo Garma
I love trying out different cuisines, not just from country to country but even within a country. What astounds me when I travel around Pakistan is the breadth of flavours that I witness as I move from city to city, to village and beyond.
To sample Hunzai cuisine, therefore, was a real treat; not only are the flavours totally different to what I had experienced in the rest of the nation, but the dishes seem to be largely unknown outside of this small hamlet in the Karakoram Range.
Hoi Lo Garma could best be described as a type of bread and vegetable stew; it’s real comfort food and I can imagine it being eaten as the cold winter sets in over the roof of the world. Served in a bowl, potatoes, spinach and torn up bits of bread are cooked together in chicken broth then topped with vegetables. Wash it down with walnut oil tea whilst looking out over Shangri La for the full Hunza experience.
It’s remarkably different to the mainstream, but that’s what makes it so special. It’s not Pakistan’s most famous meal, but for me, it’s definitely one of the most memorable.
The simple idea of turning a savoury vegetable like carrot or pumpkin, or even lentils into a sweet dish is a novel one, and I simply adore the halwa made from these plants. The creamy texture, the earthy undertones… a pudding made from something as natural and abundant as these must be good for the soul (if not the waistline!).
My only misgiving about this dish is that it is so often associated only with wintertime, whereas I could quite happily eat it at any time of the year. Imagine a scoop of vanilla ice cream atop a small mound of gajjar ka halwa served in the summer months – I know it’s not traditional, but really, who could say no? Then again, year-round availability of halwa might just be a health hazard – better keep it as a winter treat after all!
An honourable mention… chai!
Chai is not just a drink in Pakistan, it’s a way of life. And while I know that the humble cup of tea isn’t a ‘cultural meal’ as per my brief, I couldn’t leave it out. Green, milky, karak, doodhpati, at home, on a charpoy on a rooftop, from powder or from the cow, there’s no corner of the nation that isn’t powered by this stuff, and with good reason. And that’s coming from an avid coffee drinker!