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Gawalmandi: A taste of history

Updated Dec 10, 2014 01:05am

By Suhail Yusuf and Muhammad Umar

Ever wonder where the iconic Gawalmandi street got its diverse food palette from?

Khawaja Shakeel, the chairman of the Gawalmandi food street may have some answers.

“After partition, Gawalmandi was the first properly developed area outside of the walled city in Lahore. It had already become a residential community after 1911. Later on, it was the Gulberg of its time,” Shakeel explains.

According to Shakeel, the families who migrated to Lahore from Amritsar and other nearby cities settled in Gawalmandi. Among them were craftsmen and even some businessmen. A lack of employment opportunities for the newly-arrived families meant that some of the individuals started setting up small shops in front of their houses. The skillful craftsmen made a living through their trade while some of the individuals put up food stalls along the streets.

 Harees being prepared at a shop in Gawalmandi. — Photo by Muhammad Umar
Harees being prepared at a shop in Gawalmandi. — Photo by Muhammad Umar

"The food stalls gradually mushroomed until each corner of the street was offering something unique. For instance, the Sikhs from Amritsar who settled in Gawalmandi introduced gram flour-coated fried fish. This was the famous 'Sardar Fish'. The recipe has almost become an identity of Lahore now."

Similarly, barbeque techniques and various types of falooda were introduced by the families whose ancestors were pehelwans. The Kashmiris brought with them Hareesa. The rich doodh-jalebi concoction also found fame in Gawalmandi and the diverse population each brought something unique, Shakeel says.

"Gradually, there came a time when Gawalmandi became associated with great food even though there were other businesses operating here. But it was the food here that stood it apart from the rest of the city. Nowadays, people have recipes written down in books and that's how they make their food. But these were people who had taste in their hands, so to speak, from generation to generation."

 A vendor prepares chicken Sajji. — Photo by Muhammad Umar
A vendor prepares chicken Sajji. — Photo by Muhammad Umar
 A vendor prepares amarti. — Photo by Muhammad Umar
A vendor prepares amarti. — Photo by Muhammad Umar
The famous fried 'Lahore fish' being prepared. — Photo by Muhammad Umar
The famous fried 'Lahore fish' being prepared. — Photo by Muhammad Umar
 Fish coated with gram flour being prepared by a vendor. — Muhammad Umar
Fish coated with gram flour being prepared by a vendor. — Muhammad Umar

It was in 2000, when it was first suggested by some food aficionados and the local government to turn Gawalmandi into a proper food street which would it give an identity globally. So Shakeel, along with the authorities, went about convincing the community about the initiative.

"The people living here were hesitant first because they did not understand the concept. But gradually, all were in agreement and the historical structure around the street was preserved while the residential buildings were bought by the government from their owners. The photo studios and other shops were also turned into restaurants."

 The historical structures around Gawalmandi food street have been preserved. — Photo by Muhammad Umar
The historical structures around Gawalmandi food street have been preserved. — Photo by Muhammad Umar
 A view of the food street. — Photo by Muhammad Umar
A view of the food street. — Photo by Muhammad Umar
A shop that offers Hareesa and barbeque. — Photo by Muhammad Umar
A shop that offers Hareesa and barbeque. — Photo by Muhammad Umar
 The food street offers all varieties of naan and parhatas. — Photo by Muhammad Umar
The food street offers all varieties of naan and parhatas. — Photo by Muhammad Umar

It was after the American consul general visited the place that the Gawalmandi food street really took off, though.

"He was shocked to see such a diversity of food and the men, women and children all out in the street. He obviously had a very different view of Pakistan. After that diplomats from several embassies visited until the food street became a tourist hub."

Temporary setback

The Gawalmandi food street was considered to be a centre of the city’s tradition after that but in 2011 the then PML-N Punjab government shut down the street on the pretext that it 'blocked roads for motorists and citizens, including foreign tourists, visiting the area.'

The historical gates, built by wealthy Muslim, Sikhs and Hindu families before partition, were also pulled down.

The Punjab government then established another food street on the Fort Road in January 2012 but Gawalmandi's fate remained uncertain. According to businessmen in the area, around 8000 to 10,000 people, earning a livelihood from different operations of the food street, were affected as a result.

"The caretaker Punjab Chief Minister Najam Sethi finally gave us some respite and helped us reopen in 2013. I guess he realised the importance of culture and tourism. Ignorant officials have completely destroyed our tourism industry."

 The Gawalmandi has the potential to become a bustling tourist hub once again, its chairman of operations says. — Photo by Muhammad Umar
The Gawalmandi has the potential to become a bustling tourist hub once again, its chairman of operations says. — Photo by Muhammad Umar
 A view of the food street. — Photo by Muhammad Umar
A view of the food street. — Photo by Muhammad Umar
 A view of the food street. — Photo by Muhammad Umar
A view of the food street. — Photo by Muhammad Umar

According to Shakeel, the historic Gawalmandi is now back on its feet and offering more than 100 dishes from all corners of the country.

"We suffered because of ignorance and political victimisation. But are up and running again. We now have quality control and fixed rates for the whole street. Discipline and safety can be gauged by the fact that families are sitting here at 2 am. The local tourists are back."

Shakeel says Pakistan should focus on domestic tourism until foreigners feel safe to flock back to the country.

"We as a nation are a big population. Give the people a taste of their own history and culture."