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Where have the Iranian restaurants gone?

Updated July 26, 2015

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Care for tikka during the day time? / Photos by Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
Care for tikka during the day time? / Photos by Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

KARACHI: Downstairs the seating arrangement is nice and airy with several entrances to the cafe and a pleasantly smiling old gentleman behind a counter to welcome you near one of them. On one side is a staircase leading you to a mezzanine family room with big windows overlooking the main cafeteria.

The printed menus under every table glass offer several dishes with very reasonable prices.

There are the regular ones that you’d find at any Pakistani restaurant like karahi gosht, bhuna gosht, chicken masala, dal makhni, etc. There is fish, of course — fried, in curry, in pulao or biryani — and prawns, too.

There’s also chellu tikka and chellu kebab served with saffron rice and chips … Yes we are at an Iranian restaurant in Karachi.

AN order of chellu kebab and mutton curry with hot naan fresh from the tandoor. / Photos by Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
AN order of chellu kebab and mutton curry with hot naan fresh from the tandoor. / Photos by Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

The city, some seven decades ago, boasted of many Iranian restaurants though today there are hardly eight to 10 of them around. Usually located in commercial areas, especially near offices, these restaurants were a frequent haunt of office goers. They took special care to also offer breakfast or tea with paratha, omelettes, samosa and other savoury delights on the menu. Being in an office locality ensured customers, and breakfast with the savoury snacks always came in handy when you are just there to grab something in a rush. The restaurants also hired energetic waiters who, other than running up and down the family room stairs, could also deliver orders to the various offices.

One such popular Iranian restaurant that still exists and does fine business is the Khairabad Food Centre on the corner of Dr Ziauddin Ahmed Road and I.I. Chundrigar. This place, which started as a tea stall with a little bakery on the side in 1932, today has an added bakery portion called Ramzani Bakery and a snacks and Chinese food portion, too, called Agha Snacks. “We extended shop by shop to take this entire corner,” says Haji Abbas, the fourth generation to be running the place.

A typical Iranian restaurant in a busy part of town. / Photos by Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
A typical Iranian restaurant in a busy part of town. / Photos by Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

“My great grandfather started it all here and then in 1974 my father and uncle brought in all this furniture,” he says pointing to the brown rexine two-seater sofa sets facing each other with tall pale green plastic partitions at the back for privacy.

“Privacy is a big issue at all Iranian restaurants and that is why we always include a mezzanine floor as a family room because women in Iran observe purdah. We give them equal respect here as this, too, is a Muslim country,” he points out.

Haji Abbas as the few others like him running Iranian restaurants here frequently visit Iran but earn their livelihood in Pakistan. “When I first arrived here with my father, the Shah was in control back home and I was around 13 or 14, an ideal age to be inducted into the business. Now I am almost 70. A lot has changed during this time. And after me, there will be no one to run this business as my own children and their younger generation have taken up professions such as medicine and engineering because they don’t consider this work respectable.

“The same is the case with the other Iranian families running restaurants here. Some of us are also getting sick and tired of the extortionists, who threaten us while also coming here to enjoy our food,” he says. “Still if our younger generation wishes to run a restaurant, they do it in the US or other countries, not Pakistan, as besides being safe they also make more money there.”

Published in Dawn, July 26th, 2015

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