Nostalgia can be a tasty beast. Some years ago, I left Quetta because of the security situation and moved to Karachi to pursue my studies, but in the decade since, whenever I visit my beloved hometown I make sure to go to all the famous eateries that give Quetta its unique flavour.
There’s nothing better than starting the day with amazing halwa puri at Naimat Kada on Prince Road, one of the busiest markets of Quetta. The place opened its doors to the public in the mid-1980s with a single shop providing only breakfast, but now it caters to a huge clientele for lunch as well as dinner with their special biryani. “During the week, people come from different areas to have breakfast here, but on the weekend they come along with their families,” says the owner, Haji Ishtiaq Ahmed.
This reminded me of my schooldays when my father used to take us for a halwa puri breakfast on weekends. “If they don’t eat here they bring their hotpots and take away the hot puri and channa,” says Haji Ishtiaq. “We also have some nihari-lovers coming in, but somehow the locals don’t fancy nihari as much. It is the migrants from Punjab — basically barbers who have settled in Quetta for their business and have many shops around Prince Road — and labourers who love to eat nihari for breakfast as it sustains them through the day,” he adds.
When Baloch and Pakhtun food culture come together, it’s a meat-lovers’ paradise
People say that the taste of food at Naimat Kada has not changed since the day it started, but the owner is concerned about the law and order situation which has disturbed their business. For this reason alone, they are not considering expansion anytime soon.
Another place I remember from my teenage years is Mir Afzal Karrahi located on Circular Road (adjacent to M.A. Jinnah Road). We used to bunk college and go there for karrahi. I am not in favour of bunking college, but for Mir Afzal’s karrahi, it is legit to do so. The restaurant started nearly 40 years ago and is famous for the quality of meat it uses. People would sometimes even buy mutton from there as it provided some of the best meat in Quetta and still does. “Our specialty till date is our mutton and chicken karrahi,” says Haji Mir Afzal. “We have added some variety by using butter, black pepper and other ingredients to meet the taste requirements of our varied clientele.”
As far as I remember, kattakat and brain masala were not part of the menu when I started going to Mir Afzal, but these seem to be welcome additions and taste pretty good. If someone asks me what hasn’t changed in Quetta over the last two decades, the one thing at the top of my list would be delicious food at Mir Afzal Karahi.
As opposed to people in Karachi and Lahore where the chai and cafe culture is quite popular, people in Quetta usually invite friends to dinner. One famous food place for non-family meet-ups is Babu Jani Bar-B-Que at Circular Road near Meezan Chowk. Though the menu is limited, what attracts food-lovers is the amazing taste that can be compared to the Namak Mandi of Peshawar, especially the namkeen tikka boti and chaanp. “My father, Khan Muhammad, took over this business in 1959,” says the current owner Jan Muhammad. “But maybe it actually started even before he took over, perhaps before 1947,” he adds.
“The cooking process of khaddi kabab is quite something — the goat is stuffed with rice and dried fruit and is buried in a pit with burning coal on either side. The pit is then covered. “It is cooked with the heat generated by the coal inside the pit, which is why it takes so long. Slowly the flavours develop and the meat becomes tender,” says Qadir. Large families like to take a whole goat for a picnic which is more than enough for six to eight people.
After trying Babu Jani chops which I loved, I can say that nothing has changed even after a decade. “I have maintained the quality of food as I know that customers come for good food. We also use masala sparingly as it has a separate taste and people enjoy the taste of meat and not overpowering spices,” he says.
Babu Jani was the first to expand the business and now has two branches in Quetta — the other one is located at Samungli Road. Jan Muhammad is looking forward to opening more branches throughout Pakistan. That would be a formidable achievement if he can maintain taste and quality.
It is not possible to visit Quetta and not eat the delicious sajji at Lehri Sajji House located next to the Press Club. For health and diet-conscious people, sajji is one of the best foods you can find in Quetta. “With increasing health problems, sajji is the best meat dish you can have as no oil and spices are used,” says the owner Hafeez Ullah, who sat talking to us as the food was being prepared.
Though the restaurant space has been expanded, customers have to wait a bit before their order arrives. Sajji has decades-old history associated with Baloch warriors, but its modern popularity owes much to Lehri Sajji in Quetta. It is quite a sight to watch it being prepared in the open air.
A trip to Quetta is incomplete without visiting Urak, Hannah Jheel, Ziarat and other surrounding hill stations and trying out khaddi kabab. The name sounds a little strange, but it is a traditional food of Balochistan. Both chicken and mutton can be used to make it, but the locals prefer mutton. Pakistan Khaddi Kabab, located near Askari Park, is known for succulent kababs. Since khaddi kabab requires four to five hours of preparation, it is only made to order. A whole goat is used so it is worth the wait.
“My father started this business 40 years ago and I took over some 20 years ago,” says Abdul Qadir, the owner as well as the chef. “Business is not as good as it was a decade ago when we used to receive 20-25 orders a day,” he adds.
The cooking process is quite something — the goat is stuffed with rice and dried fruit and is buried in a pit with burning coal on either side. The pit is then covered. “It is cooked with the heat generated by the coal inside the pit, which is why it takes so long. Slowly the flavours develop and the meat becomes tender,” says Qadir. Large families like to take a whole goat for a picnic which is more than enough for six to eight people.
Besides traditional food places, there is also a Chinese restaurant. For a change of taste locals and visitors can enjoy a meal at Café China, which is owned by a Chinese family that has lived in Quetta since 1970. The wonderful thing about all these restaurants is that none of them have changed much. The original condition and ambience remain, although a few have replaced their furniture.
“There was a time when foreigners used to visit our city and we were proud to present them our traditional dishes,” says Hafeez Ullah of Lehri Sajji House. “But somehow it seems that the upcoming generations will be unaware of our traditional cuisine.”
Published in Dawn, EOS, April 16th, 2017