Islamabad was the world’s first city to be designed according to a board game. The country’s bureaucrats had suggested using Scrabble or even Monopoly as a template, but the military went with Battleship. No one informed the politicians, which was fine, since they only play Snakes and Ladders anyway, wherever they go.

While the grids were mapped out quite perfectly, the planners needed an area to denote the black middle area between the two grid layers on the Battleship board. They called it Black Area, but there were fears that all subsequent ‘black days’ and yaum-e-soams would be held there, and so they went with the more neutral sounding Blue, a nod to the fact that the Pakistani government secretly supported Everton Football Club in the 1920s.

I recently discovered that the Blue Area has a restaurant, nay a megataraunt, by the name of Savor Foods. The inside of this place approximates what I would imagine a beehive would look like – a swarm of people constantly buzzing in and out, tables being shared against the patrons’ wills, the entire experience unfolding in an ephemeral manner. But the thing that really made me go o_0 was the fact that the entire clientele was ‘savouring’ just one dish – the mighty/humble pulao.

Further investigation revealed that not only was the pulao wildly popular in the Land of the Five Rivers – but most of the inhabitants, including intellectuals who should know better, trumped the pulao over the holiness which is the biryani. As my nani would say, LOLWUT?

I must admit that my reaction to the pulao-business was largely tainted by a song I had been listening to on repeat those days. The song is called “Lak 28 Kuri Da, 47 Weight Kuri Da.”

It’s the kind of song which has such a powerful bassline that you can shut off the engine of your car and let the force emanating from your speakers propel the car forward. It is also peppered with hugely entertaining lyrics like “Gori hikk te kaala kaala tattoo Lady Gaga wala” and “Kudi da chitta iPhone, laake L.A. wali tone”.

You get the drift.

While some people think that fusion music was invented by Coke Studio, or Mekaal Hasan, or maybe even Junoon, the use of western instruments and beat structures has been prevalent for a long time in the subcontinent. The use of electronic and digital instruments in particular has been around in eastern music for at least five decades now.

Yet the only music that the subcontinent has been able to export to a mainstream global audience remains Punjabi bhangra/rap/dance/dhamaal music. From Apache Indian to Honey Singh, this is the desi beat the world gets down to.

To my uncultured mind, this made sense.

Drawing upon my experience of the sultriness of Punjabi film songs, the outrageousness of Punjabi ‘stage shows’, the ludicrously lewd diversity of Punjabi curses, and the general sense of hedonism that seemed to suffuse Punjabi culture, it was only natural that the Punjab (both the fertile sides along the border, as well as its diaspora) would lead the way in trashy-pop as well.

But where does Punjabi cuisine fit into all of this?

As a Karachiite studying in Lahore, I was initially disappointed and then affronted by the food scene in Lahore. Yes, Punjabis loved to eat, but was the quality of the cuisine really worth all the hype that surrounds Punjabis and their food?

At first, my Muhajir-grievance-seeking mind chalked this down to another example of pervasive mythologies used by Punjabis to cement their political dominance. However, over time and after many meals, I have come to revise this approach.

What vexes me now is the chasm between the flavours of what non-Punjabis identify as Punjabi culture versus flavours of the type of cuisine cooked here.

The Punjabi cuisine, as I have come to understand it, pays a lot of emphasis to richness and heft, hence the omnipresence of large chunks of meat and all kinds of creams, cheeses and other sins. Yet when it comes to flavours, the disconnect kicks in.

For all the saucy creativity of the curses, the sacrilege-inducing spicy thumkay of the dances, the chatt patti references to Billo’s house and Gaga tattoos in the lyrics, and the masalaydar mayhem in popular narratives, Punjabi cuisine bucks the trend by being largely staid and sensibly understated.

The pulao stands in as the sensible one who never joined its cousin biryani in taking psychotropic drugs. The humble chanay look down when the nauratan koftay expose themselves. The lassi, standing in its starched, asli makhan jora, winces when it sees the drunken brazenness of Ankal Salim’s Gola. Even the shami burger doesn’t dare a glance at the midriff baring red-yellow-and-green chutneys its Karachi relatives (typical burgers) dress themselves in.

It’s not an easy one to understand, at least from the outside looking in.

My current theory is that perhaps Punjabi cuisine stands as some idealised form of pre-modernity, a pillar of conservative tradition. After all, the Punjab has long been the heart of the subcontinent, forever enticing looters and plunderers who never want to leave once they arrive. Yet, for all this acceptance, perhaps the soil mourns the repeated loss of its innocence, the countless violations of its sanctity.

And so the people preserve their food as the humble, simple heart of what is now a globally dominant ethnicity. Perhaps the cuisine stands in for the core that stays untainted even as all around it is forced to be cut up, cut down, and cut out.

Perhaps the people of Punjab want their food to remind them of a past they never experienced. Or perhaps they just don’t watch enough of Zubeida Aapa.


Ahmer Naqvi is the Brian Lara of his generation – he’s a genius but his team usually loses. He blogs on his own property in Blogistan, and makes short films you can see here and here.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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Comments (34)

Eastern Punjabi
November 2, 2012 1:16 pm
I have been reading Dawn for ages now and many a times have restrained an urge to comment on Punjabi bashing. This criticism on cuisine by Naqvi was too much though, the punjabi in me was offended and my brethren residing west of Wagah border have full support from punjabis from Amritsar to Delhi and beyond. The UP/Bihari element (and I believe Muhajir on your side) has always envied the Punjabi lifestyle, music and culture but was always in awe of the food we enjoy. The calories we intake makes us big, well nourished and perhaps rowdy, but then that is who we are. On the eastern side of wagah we are not politically dominant but we are cuisine dominant throughout India.
November 2, 2012 8:20 pm
why is this turning into a lahore vs karachi battle ground - the guy is a writer - he is expressing a view - obviously it is irrelevant whether he prefers karachi food or lahori food - but he has written on a really mundane topic in such a witty and creative way - and i think thats the point of the piece. Frankly being a foodie myself - i really enjoyed this piece, and book marked it so i can revisit over and over again :)
A. Khan
November 3, 2012 11:14 am
Lahoris didn't know about biryani until 1950's. What ? Maybe in your family or whoever it is you talking about. More appropriately, its the bombay biryani style you are referring to. Hints of food snobbery everywhere in this article. Karachiites always feel that Islamabadis are snobs and look down on Karachi and its residents. Islamabdis actually think that about Lahore, that it is a paindoo backwater. Lahoris think Islamabad is a dull and dead place with no cultural scene and bad food and Karachi is so far away, no Lahori actually cares, no matter what the food. BTW, what punjabi food with loads of cream & cheese is the writer talking about ? Could he have mistaken the different continental style restaurants as punjabi cuisine ? Someone please enlighten me.
November 2, 2012 12:31 pm
no offence to karachites but I always tell my Karachites friends that If you throw a hand full of masala in any dish, you will get the taste that karachites like.
November 2, 2012 3:03 pm
Not to press a point, but the Karachi (and Sindhi cuisine in general) is in such masala overdrive, it'd be hard to appreciate our more milder mix of flavors. Also, don't judge Punjabi cuisine by what you order from the "desi menu" at restaurants - go to homes, dhabbas. gaouns and inner Lahore before you brand an region's food at subpar!
November 3, 2012 2:25 pm
Jealousy or envy, those could be the only reasons for the author to belittle a cuisine which is renowned for its big flavors,portions and richness. Even at so called reputable eating joints at Karachi,u will find Punjabis churning out mouth watering delights for patrons. Punjabi foods don't revolve around just chutneys to overpower the ingredient. So enjoy your chaat/pan/cheap egg-daal burgers,but don't spew hatred against a culture which is renowned for food and its flavors.
November 3, 2012 1:06 pm
Mr. Amir, Karachiwalas has no specialities of foods because in Karachi the populations are mixed with almost all the asian subcontinents. You will find Punjabi, Sindhi, Bluchi, Pakhtoon Khaws, Kashmiris, Bengalis, Biharis, UPs, Hydrabadis, Sri Lankans, Madrasi, Karalites, Urias, Afghanis, Burmise, etc., atc, and all of them have their own kind of dishes. So you cannot point out that Karachiwalas have one special dish. If you visit each and every localities, you will find different tests of dishes at their hotels.
November 2, 2012 4:21 pm
Lived in Karachi for a couple of years and never could understand what all the fuss is about, spicy all right but that's about it. Lahori food on the other hand..... Though I find the piece culturally insensitive and not funny at all, perhaps written for a different audience..
November 2, 2012 6:20 pm
Curious, looks like there seems to be a big difference in the cuisine from both these cities. Can someone kindly explain the difference to an Indian living in US and feasting on Shalimar and Pakwan menu ?
November 2, 2012 5:25 pm
i get your point, but i guess you haven't been to the right places to eat. being half a karchi-ite and half a lahori who spent most of his life in lahore, i have to say i agree with you in points where u say biryani in karachi is EPIC while the lahori "biryani" is just pulao in fake skin, but you have to taste the karahi in lahore, you cant get decent karahi in karachi. similarly there are other things aswell that are in karachi that thier lahori counterparts cant touch but that works both ways. the cholay and halwa poori in lahore is un-comparable to that thing that they call puris in karachi. moreover i think we should just agree to the fact that every area has their own taste and we should revel in that rather than trying to find a mini karachi in lahore or a mini lahore in karachi cz i fell in that trap once and was sold matar pilao as biryani!!!!
November 2, 2012 11:53 am
We can't blame Karachites for not appreciating the Lahori (punjabi) cuisine. After eating Slims for most of their lives, their taste buds can't pick up on the subtle yet well-defined flavours in our dishes. LOL!
married to punjabi
November 2, 2012 1:19 pm
great article..i think the writer has just put down his observations and hasnt really offended some people commenting should chill and enjoy his take on things..
Mohammad Khan
November 2, 2012 4:37 pm
"a nod to the fact that the Pakistani government secretly supported Everton Football Club in the 1920s." Are you sure it is1920, just for your knowledge Pakistan was made in 1947. Please have some in your brain before having in your stomech.
November 3, 2012 12:17 pm
Whats the life expectancy eating this food day in day out? My Punjabi colleagues who are in their late forties all now are suffering from coronaries!! says a lot doesn`t it?
Rani Sharma
November 3, 2012 10:47 am
That is true only if you concentrate on the word pulao. Any spiced rice could be termed pulao. In South India the natives cook what is called BHAAT and it is cooked over a wok It is very similar. Pakistanis have a tendency to attribute every achievement to the Mid-east, perhaps because they believe they are truly mid-easterners somehow abandoned on the Indian subcontinent. I have even had pakistanis tell me that Indian classical music was borrowed from the mid-easterners.
November 2, 2012 12:20 pm
Make fun Ahmer Naqvi If and when you land up in towns overseas where there are only a handful of your kind, be they Pakistanis or Indians you will crave for the poor pulao.. Thank God in my town of only 15 Sikhs we have young Pakistani working here on a permit [from Pakistan] in a food stall who makes good tandoori chicken and nan.What you need is an invasion of "Indian" cooking from England [ most Pakistani outlets call them selves Indian}, namely chicken tika and curry, top sellers in England.No masala or proper,condiments. just color with salt and some chicken pieces.Will be a hit there with your hoity toity.After all if the goras like this why not they. Jack up the price. After all you have foreign cooks.There is money to be made.
November 2, 2012 8:12 pm
I am a punjabi and i cant agree more with you.
November 2, 2012 12:26 pm
this blog reminds me of naulakha or shola, without a taste of its own....
November 2, 2012 8:01 pm
Well since I know that you were a Karachiite who was staying at LUMS at that time, let me get a few things straight. Staying at LUMS does not mean staying in Lahore, for LUMS is a bubble. Hence after reading this article i can assume that you, like most hostelites at LUMS, did not venture out that much in Lahore, and even when you did, you either went to H. Block, Y. Block (defence) or once or twice to Anarkali. But this merely gives you a one-sided view on Lahore's food, and trust me it is merely a glimpse. Lahore's food is completely at par with that of Karachi, with the amount of masala in any given food always under your control. All you have to do is venture out of that tiny bubble of yours. Regards, A Karachiite from LUMS.
November 2, 2012 1:46 pm
As a transplanted Lahori in Karachi, I have to agree with Ahmer, that Punjabi food makes up for in sheer quantity what Karachi’s cocktail of spices packs in a few small bites. The hit of Karachi’s food is more acute, more tasty, and more filling than the heft that must be consumed when up country to achieve the same feeling. The subtlety in the spices when I eat in Lahore is so subtle as to be non-existent. Whereas you don’t have to pack the pounds in Karachi to stay warm during those colder Punjabi nights, the sea breeze carries away the sweat of novices and little children, exposed for the first time to Karachi’s food. Leaving behind, a fulfilled, satisfied feeling.
November 2, 2012 8:45 pm
great article....amusing and true..i have been in lahore for the last 4 years and i totally agree with u...Food is rich but it usually lacks taste...:) otherwise lahore is adorable...:)
November 3, 2012 7:31 am
so, what do you think offensiveness is in itself?????? This is most offessive piece I ever have read. Absolutely defamatory.
November 2, 2012 2:42 pm
I ate food with a few karachiwalas and let me just say, plan on running to the toilet as soon as your done eating. Masala on steriods
Faisal Taquie
November 2, 2012 6:24 pm
Guys! Hold your horses, the writer does not represent all people of Karachi! Most food throughout Pakistan is consistent, by and large but some places are more famous for others, e.g. Karachi's student biryani and nihari, Lahori Chargha, KP's chapli kababs, etc. As if the country does not have enough differences, lets not fight over all depends upon the cook whether the cook is Karachi, Lahore, Pindi, Peshaawar, or somewhere in Greenland!
November 2, 2012 6:28 pm
Hey i have a solution for your problem.............. GO BACK TO KARACHI !!!!
Naeem Malik
November 2, 2012 7:03 pm
If I remember correctly, Punjabis did not know what a Biryani was until thy the late fifties - I remember when we visited our Punjabi relatives my mum introducing them to Biryani - she was a Karachiite born and bred predating the partition.
Abdus Salam Khan
November 3, 2012 4:14 am
In fact, Pulao is a middle eastern dish and it has lingered on in the Punjab as a legacy of its cultural ties to the Middle East. By the way, it was Turkisn Pulao that made Coomander Robinson of the Royal Navy, whose ship was on a visit to Turkey, to invstigate the rich culture that could produce a dish like the Pulao and eventually convert to Islam
Rani Sharma
November 3, 2012 5:16 am
Punjabi food is over-hyped. I am Punjabi and I pull no punches. Punjabi food is unhealthy, over-spiced, lacks any sublime touches. There are some saving graces such as the roti, but not the naan. If Punjabis would learn to cook with much less oil, less spices, stress more on the vegetables, then Punjabi food could be good. But the food reflects the people. Punjabis are loud, confrontational, given to loud behaviour, and totally lacking in understatement. I daresay that the quandry that Pakistan finds itself in could be traced to its domination by Punjabis.
November 3, 2012 8:55 am
A hilarious piece of writing.... but Punjabi food bashing is a bit harsh... anyways still I like the writer style of complaining and rich phrases.... No need to make it Lahore Vs. Karachi. I would still serve the same masala rich, full of sinfully unhealthy oily dishes to my Karachiites friends and at the same time would laugh out loud with them at their jokes on Punjabi foods... “Jee ayaan nuu” this is Punjab,, we can even laugh at ourselves, that’s the Punjabi spirit
November 2, 2012 4:41 pm
It am sorry to see all these comments and sheer ignorance of the writer. Please study history once in a while. Punjabi food is basically Afghan/Persian food cooked with Indic spices.
Vaneesa Ahmed
November 2, 2012 5:38 pm
Compared to the contrary belief Original Punjabis eat pretty less spices and our cuisine is not about the spices at all as it is more about nutrition and healthy diet. I live in a village in Punjab and we cannot each much spices at all but in our blood desi ghee, desi eggs and pure milk and butter is running and we are more healthy and physically fit than other people and women and men work side by side in villages and in my view masalas on a daily basis are unhealthy and only on some occasions they suit you otherwise their use should be minimal and rather than asking us why we use less spices kindly start learning from us for a healthy diet and live a happy lifestyle.
Yasin Khan
November 3, 2012 1:14 pm
Ahmer always manages to sound like a stuck up individual who believes that the world revolves around him. Get over yourself. I was born and raised in Karachi and I love every Pakistani cuisine. Be it the Burns road dhagey wala kebab in Karachi; the delicious paye (Phajjay) in Lahore; Chappali Kebab in Peshawar or Sujji in Quetta. Enjoy the cuisines; be thankful for the variety in dishes that are available; and most importantly STOP WHINGING ABOUT EVERYTHING
Pro truth
November 2, 2012 12:02 pm
Dude get over it seriously, it may not be for your taste buds and it may not be so healthy! but many people love it as it is with all its richness and high fat contents. They may not use all A-Z spices, but it does spice up Punjabis lives!
Abdus Salam Khan
November 3, 2012 10:44 am
Rani Ji, I am afraid you are indulging in hasty generalizations. For example, you completely ignore the fact that most of the Punjabis live in the villages where the daily fare is very spartan but healthy and nourishing. They subsist on Roti, vegetables. daal,milk and Lassi. Pray do not mix up the. extravagant urban nuevo riches with the rural majority. Also, since they are tillers of the land, their language and behaviour is very earthy. But their love for the transcendent is apparent in their love for the saints that Punjab has always produced, starting from Kabir to Nanak to the suif saints.Show me just one such mystical and culturally rich region like the Puhjab.!
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