As an unmarried woman traveling solo in Pakistan, I learned that food was one "gasm" not prohibited to me by Sharia Law. Shawarma? Sha-wing!
The first thing I appreciated about visiting Pakistan after India was a return to the land of carnivores. Pakistan is predominantly Muslim, so the meat was a-plenty. Thank you, Allah, for allowing your people to eat such delicious cuts of dead animals. Except for bacon, because in Islam, pork is a no-no. The Pakistanis I met had never tried bacon. However, their perfection of shawarma was absolutely divine.
I like to call Pakistani shawarma the burritos of Asia because they're so. fucking. boss. Wrapped in pita bread and packed with spices, shawarma is usually stuffed with flavorful strips of meat, sliced tomatoes, whole peppers, as well as yogurt and hot sauces. For about a dollar a pop, shawarma can be purchased on the street, and vendors stay open late into the evenings.
Next up you've got your chicken biryani. This dish comes from the Persian empire, and traveled south along the spice route to Pakistan. It features yellow and orange colored basmati rice, roasted chicken, and hella spices. Think nutmeg, cloves, star anise, bay leaves, cinnamon, garlic, and everything nice. This is served with yogurt sauce on the side, for that hot vs. cold combo to further enhance the face stuffing experience.
This Chicken Biryani came from a small unnamed shop near Mall Road in Lahore. For a hundred and twenty Pakistani Rupees, equal to $1.20 USD, I was served a giant plate of rice and chicken that had big chunks of large, nut-shaped spices I tried to chew but couldn't identify. The flavors were absolutely out-of-this-world.
Pakistani food uses a wide variety of herbs and spices. In fact, I think a lot of the "Indian" food we are familiar with in the United States is actually Pakistani food. It seems to feature a lot more diversity in flavors, as well as a more intense heat from chili and pepper. Along with the spices described for Chicken Biryani, Pakistani food utilizes brown and green cardamon, cumin, mace, turmeric, coriander, saunf, white zeera, the list goes on and on.
Perhaps this cuisine uses so much flavor because herbs and spices are cheap to purchase in Pakistan! During your trip, be sure to stock up at local markets - I got all of these herbs and spices for less than eight dollars. Most of the spice bags cost 30-50 cents each. Cooks often combine flavors to create new curries, like this one for eggplant, or to make garam masala.
"Pakistani food is the best food because it is 'five rivers land'," remarked Fida Hassanain, a local law journalist I met at a shawarma stand, "it means, it is so fertile and stands different among other nations and their culture. Food depends upon the culture. The cultures and civilizations of India and Pakistan are [some of] the oldest civilizations in the world."
Another famous chicken dish in Pakistan is called chicken karahi. According to Lahore local Shayma Saadat, author of the blog Spicespoon, chicken karahi is the city's star culinary attraction.
This dish is known for being particularly spicy. We ate ours with our hands, scooping out the chicken and vegetables using a flat bread that is known as chapati.
Chapati is an unleavened bread made from flour and water. Resembling tortillas, chapati is rolled out and prepared on a skillet with oil. Chapati is a staple for South Asian cuisine. It is eaten with almost any dish that is scoopable.
Some of the best chapati I ever tasted came from a park near the Lahore Fort. Pakistan has some beautiful, well-maintained parks where couples and families like to gather. My Pakistani friend and I were seated on the grass on a warm, sunny day when we purchased the chapati. It came from a man who carried the soft, white flat bread for sale from his basket. The chapati cost about ten cents, and came with big chunks of fried, spicy potato goodness wrapped in local newspaper. We ate with our hands.
The streets of Pakistan are a great place to find fresh fruit, and an even better place to try fresh squeezed juice. Pakistan is pretty clean, so the street juice is a lot more hygienic than other places in this part of the world. Try the sugar cane juice, which is sold from carts. They have it on display in small, cut up pieces.
Or else, try the orange juice. It is superb. If you prefer they will add a little salt, or even throw in some lime. This guy made the best orange juice of all time, and I especially enjoyed drinking it out of a beer mug.
For a snack on the go, try a variety of nuts, grains, and legumes that are heated in a metal colander over fire.
They are served in a folded piece of newspaper that is easy to carry away.
Pakistan is also home to some tasty salads.
I had a breakfast salad from another food cart that was simply delicious. It was a mixture of almonds, fresh strawberries, dried fruit, pomegranate seeds, and other tasty ingredients served with a creamy white yogurt sauce. It was sweet, crunchy, and had all the qualities a breakfast salad should emulate.
This well rounded breakfast was even vegetarian.
I sampled a mixed bean salad outside the Lahore Fort, which is a UNESCO heritage site definitely worth seeing. There are plenty of vendors outside that insure you wont become hungry or thirsty amidst your sightseeing.
Also in close proximity to the fort is the world's second largest mosque. Of course, the number one thing I took away was that the mosque was completely surrounded by marijuana plants. If that doesn't make you hungry, I don't know what will.
In other parts Lahore, there are more established food stands that serve what they refer to as "European style" salad. It is likely called this because many of the ingredients are inspired by European cuisine. You can pick your toppings, which include chick peas, pasta, and various cream sauces. These are all piled on top of one another into a cup for your enjoyment.
Salads in this country are generally eaten with silverware. This is different from most Pakistani food, which is eaten using your hands.
Ice Cream is hugely popular in Pakistan. While men like socialize around tea shops, ice cream parlors are gathering places the whole family can enjoy. And by the whole family, I mean that they're women and mixed gender friendly.
As a result, sharing ice cream has become a popular pastime and a ideal way to socialize for many Pakistanis.
Pretty sure I enjoyed ice cream just about every day that I was in Pakistan. It's served in sundaes, shakes, in cups or in cones. My favorite was the ice cream made out of dates, mostly because it was something I hadn't seen elsewhere in the world.
Pakistan doesn't get a lot of international tourists. In fact, when I checked into my hostel, I was the only guest there. For days. This is a shame because Pakistan (at the very least Lahore, I cannot speak for the rest of the country) has great food, beautiful parks, and I found the people to be warm and welcoming. There is, however, a lot of domestic tourism, and many Pakistanis come to Lahore to visit a place called food street.
The atmosphere of food street is definitely vibrant. I believe Shayma Saadat of Spicespoon describes the allure of this place best in her blog Spicespoon.
In the corner, you see a man preparing taka tak, an onomatopoeic name for the sound of the spatula hitting the griddle. The taka tak-walla's arms a blur: like scissor blades coming together, beating the spatulas on the griddle to mince a medley of brain, liver, heart, kidneys, sweetbreads and gizzard. Not a dish for the meek. Left right, left right, taka tak, taka tak, taka tak. Each hit mincing it further into an amalgamous mass of layered flavors and spice (Sadaat: 2009).
Unfortunately, my experience with food street was less than awesome. The first time I went was with a Pakistani man, who insisted that we sit hidden away in the "family area", despite my request that we sit outside where we could observe all of the action. I assume we did this because I'm a woman. We sat in a boring, white walled room, with nothing to look at, which for me killed the whole point of going to food street.
The second time I went, I was with two other solo women travelers I had met. This time, we sat outside. It was definitely interesting and worth doing just to see the taka tak being prepared, which is quite a show. Unfortunately, as three foreign women hailing from The Philippines, US, and Russia, we attracted a lot of attention. As we waited for our check, a young homeless woman and her many street children began hovering over us. Naturally, this made us uncomfortable for our belongings, our space, and most of all guilty for having eaten all this food when the restaurant wouldn't give them any. The restaurant didn't want us to share, lest it be like Kyle giving twenty dollars to a homeless man on South Park. However, the restaurant wasn't going out of their way to make them leave, either.
The check came, and we tried to explain why we were uncomfortable pulling out our money with the street family breathing down our necks. The woman and her children just stood there, silently hovering over us, staring. It was like they were unable to blink, all they wanted was a glimpse of our money. The servers acted like they didn't know how to handle the situation, as if this were not something they normally dealt with. It probably wasn't - we had definitely been targeted. The servers grew angry, assuming that we were trying to get out of paying, so we tried to pull out our money as discreetly as possible. The experience was definitely perplexing, and most of all guilt inducing. It's kind of hard to enjoy a nice dinner with new friends from around the world when you're being slapped in the face by the realities of poverty. Privilege that.
A lot of readers will never witness this kind of poverty, let alone experience it. Just know that it's heart wrenching and at times overwhelming to absorb the reality of it, and when you witness it, it becomes staggering to consider that this lifestyle could be possible in a civilized world. Why hasn't mankind found a way to give them a leg up? Millions of people will never know anything but hardship.
This is a heavy subject, and I don't want to go down that road with my foodgasm. So if you're looking to have a dinner in Lahore that wont leave you snowballing with complex emotions, my recommendation would be to skip food street altogether. I thought the food was better from local restaurants and street vendors, anyway. Besides the food street experience, my trip to Pakistan was pretty incredible and I would definitely recommend this country to other travelers. Just be forewarned: Pakistan is BYOB.
Kat Vallera - NomadiKat Travel Media
Author of the book, "Around the World in 80 J's" now on Amazon. There is a chapter in this book that goes way more in depth on the subject of poverty, its impact on society, and how we can work together to make a difference.