Whenever my Pakistani friends mention ‘Burns Road’, they do it with a mixture of hungry delight and semi-horror.
For someone like me, who has been in Karachi for just shy of a month, this food street has become somewhat of an urban legend. I’ve heard about the “mystery meats” which supposedly are to die for, of the best Biryani (or Briyani, as we spell it back in Singapore) in the world, and of the rows and rows of dessert shops that would overindulge anyone with a sweet tooth.
But I’ve also heard it can be unspeakably grimy and uncontrolled. Before setting off, I was advised to keep my belongings close to me and not eat anything I cannot identify. Suddenly, it sounded like I was set to embark upon Alice's descent down the rabbit hole.
Now for a bit of a background on myself – I come from Singapore, a hyper-regulated little city state in Southeast Asia. With a land area of 710 km2 (five times smaller than Karachi), the government can afford to poke their fingers into every little matter – from civilian courtesy to public hygiene.
Just to illustrate, chewing gum is banned in my country just to avoid the ‘disconcerting phenomenon’ of leftover gum stuck on surfaces. As I speak, hot and sweaty outdoor food establishments back home are gradually being replaced by sanitised, air-conditioned outlets (along with a complimentary increase in prices).
Thus, Burns Road is just about the antithesis of everything the Singapore I know stands for. Whoever has heard of meat burnt on skewers right next to traffic, seasoned with the dust and oil of the roads?
I admit, I was overwhelmed when I first got to Burns Road. My senses could not cope with the countless details all around me. One minute I was waddling amidst cages of live poultry, getting blood and feathers on my slippers and the next I was right next to the searing flames of a kebab stall while the traffic blared past just inches from my face. Once or twice I thought I smelt something good – something similar to nicely marinated satay (skewered meat popular in Singapore) with a hint of foreign spices, but I could never identify the source before it got blown away by the petrol fumes of a wayward rickshaw.
When I passed the stretch of dessert shops, I saw a few men slurping a smooth paste out of clay cups while squatting by the side of the street. My sweet-tooth instinctively awakened, and I was so close to getting some for myself, but I thought of the bun kebab I ate at Zainab market.
That one bun put me in bed (and toilet) for four days. Such are the downfalls of an untrained stomach, too used to the cleanliness of Singapore, and it was pretty frustrating to have to miss out on all the (said to be) good stuff on Burns Road.
So on my first trip to this famed street, I filled my stomach with the sights and sounds of the place – dead cats, live goats, mysterious stains on the ground, towers of meat baking in the sun and flames, donkeys crossing the road while impatient vehicles honked away and ironically, for now, I’m satiated.
However, I have been told that the place really only comes alive after it gets dark. If I ever get the chance to visit it again at nighttime, maybe this time I’ll muster up the courage to have dinner along Burns Road like a true Pakistani.