CUISINE: SALAD ON THE GO

Published December 10, 2017

Away from the sanitised, ordered and air-conditioned salad bars pul kay uss paar (across the bridge), Waseem’s knife slices through the fresh green cucumber to restock the empty plastic strainer on his thela (pushcart). He has been in the business of selling salad for about eight years in the Kharadar area — Karachi’s famed old town.

The bustling and historical locality has seen a mushroom growth in roadside eateries, both for traditional as well as contemporary fastfood. The traditional food is served from 10am onwards while the fast food sale begins by 4pm continuing till 3am.

Waseem is one of four thela owners in Kharadar’s winding and curving lanes. Another vendor, Mohammad Ejaz, has been attached to this trade for more than 20 years. At 4:30pm Ejaz ends his shift and hands over the stall to his son Soofian. “I’m going home to catch up on sleep,” says Ejaz and quickly updates his son on the current orders for plates of salads that need to be processed.

The salad vendors in old city areas offer inexpensive and healthy eating

The thela’s primary sales are from the nearby biryani eateries and restaurants serving Punjabi cuisine. Besides that they get orders for salads at weddings as well as from the area’s residents and the local labour community. “When we had the time, we’d design salads for shaadi events. We don’t do that anymore,” says Waseem hastily. “Now, we slice and dice the vegetables and send them off to the caterers, who design them accordingly.”

Sharafat Ali stands behind his ‘salad bar’ near Cafe Hasan
Sharafat Ali stands behind his ‘salad bar’ near Cafe Hasan

Once the strainer is full, Waseem stops slicing cucumbers and puts down his knife. He starts to fill small plastic bags with a mixture of the vegetables he has already diced and secures each bag with a rubber band. He is processing an order of 50 such packets to send to a restaurant deeper inside Kharadar’s tangled lanes.

Ejaz wakes up at 2am and leaves for New Sabzi Mandi to buy vegetables for the next day. Soofian, who is studying for his matriculation, closes the stall at around 2am and heads home to sleep. His father will later set up shop at 7am and with the exception of Sundays, the cycle continues.

A customer buys salad from Ejaz’s thela in Kharadar
A customer buys salad from Ejaz’s thela in Kharadar

The demand for their salad specifically increases during the hot and sweltering summer days. These days customers’ favourite items are beetroots, carrots and turnips. But apart from eating salad as a way to beat the heat, there are other reasons, too. “Now, people eat them for health reasons, thanks to the cooking shows and morning shows on television. Carrots are eaten to maintain good eyesight, turnips for digestion and so on,” Waseem says with a smile.

“Or to stay fit and reduce the belly,” quips in Sharafat Ali, jokingly. Ali runs his own stall at Café Hasan closer to the city courts, some two kilometres east of Kharadar. His thela is lined with seasonal vegetables including, beetroot, turnip, lettuce, cabbage, carrot and onion — all lying thinly sliced in heaps. “In the evening, young boys and men come to our stall for a light snack on their way back from the gym,” he says over his high-caloric breakfast of channa and naan with a healthy arrangement of veggies on the side. The “eat healthy” norm usually works on an advisory basis. “If you are looking to reduce your weight or stay fit, people will recommend that you eat healthy,” Ali continues. “They suggest eating vegetables on a daily basis for which they come to us.”

Danish slices cucumbers for his thela near Patti Gali
Danish slices cucumbers for his thela near Patti Gali

However, there is a grouse inbetween the smiles and laughter. Waseem and Ejaz argue that while vegetable prices fluctuate in the open market, customers don’t realise their need to raise prices. “The price for one plate or packet of salad is 20 rupees and that price has remained constant for the last five years, even though the prices of vegetables have significantly increased.” For this very reason, Ejaz and Waseem stopped selling tomatoes some three years ago.

The thela’s primary sales are from the nearby biryani eateries and restaurants serving Punjabi cuisine. Besides that they get orders for salads at weddings as well as from the area’s residents and the local labour community. “When we had the time, we’d design salads for shaadi events. We don’t do that anymore,” says Waseem hastily.

Ali only adds tomatoes to his vegetable assortment when the rates dip to below 50 rupees a kilo. “When the rates increase, we lessen the quantity,” he says. “Don’t they protest?” I ask. “Yes they do, but we can’t help it!” he replies.

Mohammad Aamir Qadri, Waseem’s frequent customer thinks otherwise, “The customer will always want more for the value of money, provided that the quality is maintained.”

Danish prepares a plate of salad for a customer
Danish prepares a plate of salad for a customer

However, at 20 rupees a plate, Ali believes that the idea of dieting becomes accessible to all, although only people with strong dispositions who are immune to water-borne diseases can opt for these salads. “Sometimes we get customers asking for 10 rupees worth of salad,” he says, referring to why they must keep the prices affordable.

That does not discount the costs of doing business in the old town. Costs rise, due to (unforeseen) expenses in the form of beet or bhatta (extortion money). “The ‘collector’ comes once a week for payment,” says Danish as he sprinkles water to keep the vegetables fresh in this dry weather. His thela is located close to Patti (tea) Gali and attached to the Ghareeb Nawaz Hotel; this is where the tap water he uses is sourced from. Danish, is 17 years old and new to this business, having started just six months ago. “On days when business is slow I work longer hours to make up for these additional charges.”

For Danish and his fellow workers — Waseem, Ali, Ejaz and Soofiaan —are forced to navigate these everyday realities of work. They and their thelas become vehicles to provide an option for nutritious food at a cheap price in spaces dominated by urban disorder.

The writer tweets at @_basilandrews
And can be followed on Instagram at @basilandrews

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 10th, 2017

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