Let’s face it, Islamabad is not known for its street food. Lahore has taken the lead in that category of culinary arts and we are completely okay with it.
Despite that, the federal capital is not devoid of its share of unique street food that is unknown in other parts of the country, especially if you go south. Being a fairly new cosmopolitan, Islamabad derives its street food traditions from the multifarious cultures that the city proudly hosts, most dominantly from our friendly neighbours on the north-west: Afghanistan.
The first, and perhaps the oldest, amongst these are the French fries that have engraved their place in every Islamabadi’s childhood memories. What is so unique about French fries, you may find yourself asking. However, these fries are nothing that you would find being served at a multinational fast food joint. The fries – commonly known as ‘Afghani chips’ – are wavy, limp and served with a heavy dose of chaat masala and mint chutney. Why they are called ‘Afghani’ is still a mystery but it perhaps has to do with the fact that they were sold mostly by the early Afghan settlers in the city. This is the reason you cannot find anything similar in other metropolitan cities such as Lahore or Karachi.
Another important, yet a comparatively recent, addition to the local street food are ‘Afghani burgers’. Nested away in a hidden sub-sector market in Sector G-9/4, the Khawaja Market, Ajmal Khan’s Tasty Bite outlet started selling these unimaginably delightful snacks a few years ago. The Afghani burgers are less of a burger and more of a wrap, but then again who are we to question the name?
Slowly, these Afghani burgers made their way into hearts of young school and college kids who stormed Ajmal Bhai’s stall to satiate their appetite while bunking classes. Over the time, the snack became known as the ‘dude food’.
Many associate the burgers to their midnight hunger pangs, or munchies – if you’re into that kind of a thing. That being said, the burgers do enjoy a sizable fan following among the fairer sex as well.
With the increase in fame of the snack came the offshoots of the original Afghani burger. The Najeeb Spot in Sector F-10 Markaz attracts large crowds, mainly due to its central location and easy access. Even the Khawaja Market itself has almost four other vendors selling the same product, made in the exact same way.
The burger essentially comprises sausages (either beef or chicken), French fries (or Afghani chips), cabbages, onions, tomato chutney and mint chutney. All these ingredients are neatly tucked inside a sheet of half an Afghani bread which is almost a foot in diameter. The tomato chutney adds a unique tangy flavour to the concoction, it is made with vinegar, salt, red chillies and, of course, tomatoes.
Eating the wrap is a task on its own, as the sauces keep oozing out of both ends and the fries keep falling out. However, fortunately (or unfortunately), the burgers are wrapped and served inside old pages torn out of newspapers and yellow pages directories. So, you need to master the art of slowly peeling off the wrapping as you eat, ensuring that the ingredients of the snack stay intact.
Though hygiene is not something that you look forward to when you are about to devour street food, the good thing about Afghani burger is that you can see it being created right in front of your eyes, à la Subway sandwiches. You can even suggest the ratio of ingredients to the vendor and create your own style of the burger.
Zaidullah, who works at one of the Aghani burger stalls, told Dawn that burgers are a common snack in Afghanistan. “When I was in Kabul, I used to love these burgers. After coming to Pakistan, I decided to open a stall here and start selling them to the local crowd,” he said as managed multiple tasks of frying the sausages and rolling the burgers. “All the vendors that I have encountered in Islamabad are following almost the same recipe, and it’s nice to see that they are promoting the local Afghan food.”
A long time patron of the Afghani burgers, Uzair Azmi, claimed that he had been in love with them since a long time. “I had it almost every other day. It was, honest to God, street soul food, which was not very expensive and was sufficient enough to serve as a meal at lunch time. But now it is being made by so many other people who do not put their heart into the task, they just jam in lots of stuff and charge a hefty amount for it,” he complained. He wished that the original Afghani burger would make a comeback, which was not as commercialised as it is now.
Hassam, a high school student, reminisced about all the times he spent at Khawaja Market with his friends, savouring the Afghani burger. “I will say this out loud, I am a diehard fan. And Ajmal Bhai’s shop is perhaps the only place I still go to get them. The other vendors are not doing such a great job. I once witnessed the F-10 outlet making the burgers in very unhygienic manner, it was quite a turn-off.”
Ghania, who works in a non-government organisation, added: “I like these burgers, because they have a unique flavour of sauces that are used to make them.” She mentioned that she had somewhat an emotional connection to these burgers, as she always comes out to enjoy them with her brother or friends.
Despite mixed reviews, the success of this snack is manifested by the mushroom growth of Aghani burger vendors throughout the city. It is not long before the snack makes its way out of the capital city and expands its markets to other parts of the country.
Published in Dawn, September 8th, 2014