As I gulped down my glass of chilled sweet lassi at the Karachi Press Club, crunching on the ice chips left at the bottom, a friend accompanying me suggested I try salted lassi, since that is apparently best for the hot and humid weather of Karachi, and for one’s depleting electrolytes. “Even better, try Irani lassi. It is the best. It also has mint in it. Most refreshing,” he added.
Irani lassi! Where could I find it?
I find out that it arrives in Karachi by bus from Balochistan and is sold in a market set up near the bus terminal at Baldia, situated off the Hub River Road. And soon I was on the quest for this perfect beverage.
Luckily, I know a daredevil young Baloch driver who is familiar with the area. He knew of the market as well as other shops in Lyari which also sell the hard-to-find lassi. “But the market is big,” he tells me. “It not only sells Irani lassi, you’ll also find cheese, salad dressings, sweets, chocolates, cakes, biscuits, cooking oils, etc., there. All at very reasonable prices.”
A market in Karachi’s outskirts is host to a whole array of good quality and cheap smuggled Iranian food items, including their most refreshing version of lassi — doogh
Intrigued, my next step was to not lose any more time and head out there. Our chatty driver told us that Iranians are very particular and strict about the quality of food items. “Anything past its expiry date is chucked out of their shops.”
Hoping that the ‘chucked out’ stuff doesn’t then make it to our markets, I made a mental note to check the expiry date on the food items once we reached the shops.
The market is located on a broken down, bumpy road, featuring potholes of all shapes and sizes. As we drove on it, pebbles kept flying up and hitting against the floor of the car. When we arrived, the shopkeepers were more than happy to show me the items on sale. But as soon as I opened my mouth to ask questions instead of trying the lassi, I noticed concerned frowns all around.
“Look Bibi, you are welcome to purchase anything you like from us, but don’t expect us to answer any questions,” said one of them before turning to our driver and scolding him in Balochi. The poor kid looked sheepish and embarrassed. Many other shopkeepers also had a similar attitude. I would soon understand why. We came to a small shop that we had ignored earlier. There was a car parked outside it with its trunk open. The car owner was loading crates of lassi and boxes of cream cheese in it.
Qazi Aslam, the car owner, tells me that he is a regular customer. “I come here every other week. My family loves doogh and cheese. It’s excellent stuff. And so cheap,” he says. I learn that the lassi is called doogh in Farsi and Balochi lingo.
“Quite frankly, I would be buying it even if it weren’t this cheap,” he smiles, adding that the prices are low as all the items bypass customs. “There is no custom duty involved,” he says. In other words, it is all smuggled into Pakistan. This was the reason for the shopkeepers’ reluctance to answer any questions.
Qazi Aslam skips to his car’s trunk and pulls out a big bottle of lassi from it. “Here, you must try it. Consider it a treat from your big brother,” he says as he shoves the bottle into my hands.
It is a sealed one-and-a-half litre bottle, very well packaged with the expiry date clearly stamped on it, notifying me that the beverage was produced on May 26, 2021 and that it expires on September 26, 2021.
“Have it chilled, and shake well before pouring it into a glass,” he says, before getting in his car and driving off.
Thanks to the friendly-natured customer, the shopkeeper, too, notices my harmless demeanour. The frown lines start to ease off his forehead. He tells me that the bottle of doogh is for 100 rupees only. He shows me boxes of cream cheese that cost 50 rupees each. There are bottles of salad dressing for 200 rupees each.
There are tall blue tin cans of orange juice labeled ‘Rani’, not Irani, mind you. There are also big fat jars of tomato paste, boxes of flavoured chewing gum, and more boxes of sponge cake. I am told the juice and cake are hot sellers in Boulton Market. They sell by the bulk there, as do the Iranian sweets and toffees.
Akbar, the shopkeeper, also shares his sister’s WhatsApp number with me. “She sells all this stuff that you see here and more, such as saffron, shampoo, chocolates, cooking oil, etc., online,” he says.
When asked if goods from Pakistan also reach Iranian markets the same way Iran-made products make their way here, the shopkeeper laughs and shakes his head. “There are sanctions against Iran, not against Pakistan,” he replies. “Our products are exported through official channels. Besides, Iran is very choosy about what they import. If they have a good onion yield or orange produce, they will not buy it from us. But yes, they do regularly import cotton yarn as well as cloth from Pakistan,” he adds.
As per the instructions of my ‘big brother’, once home, I chill the bottle of gifted doogh and shake it before I pour a little bit from it for myself to try. It’s salty with just the right touch of mint to give you an amazing flavour. So refreshing! Cheers!
The writer is a member of staff
She tweets @HasanShazia
Published in Dawn, EOS, August 1st, 2021