Punning the Punjab

02 Nov 2012


Islamabad was the world’s first city to be designed according to a board game. The country’s bureaucrats had suggested using Scrabble or even Monopoly as a template, but the military went with Battleship. No one informed the politicians, which was fine, since they only play Snakes and Ladders anyway, wherever they go.

While the grids were mapped out quite perfectly, the planners needed an area to denote the black middle area between the two grid layers on the Battleship board. They called it Black Area, but there were fears that all subsequent ‘black days’ and yaum-e-soams would be held there, and so they went with the more neutral sounding Blue, a nod to the fact that the Pakistani government secretly supported Everton Football Club in the 1920s.

I recently discovered that the Blue Area has a restaurant, nay a megataraunt, by the name of Savor Foods. The inside of this place approximates what I would imagine a beehive would look like – a swarm of people constantly buzzing in and out, tables being shared against the patrons’ wills, the entire experience unfolding in an ephemeral manner. But the thing that really made me go o_0 was the fact that the entire clientele was ‘savouring’ just one dish – the mighty/humble pulao.

Further investigation revealed that not only was the pulao wildly popular in the Land of the Five Rivers – but most of the inhabitants, including intellectuals who should know better, trumped the pulao over the holiness which is the biryani. As my nani would say, LOLWUT?

I must admit that my reaction to the pulao-business was largely tainted by a song I had been listening to on repeat those days. The song is called “Lak 28 Kuri Da, 47 Weight Kuri Da.”

It’s the kind of song which has such a powerful bassline that you can shut off the engine of your car and let the force emanating from your speakers propel the car forward. It is also peppered with hugely entertaining lyrics like “Gori hikk te kaala kaala tattoo Lady Gaga wala” and “Kudi da chitta iPhone, laake L.A. wali tone”.

You get the drift.

While some people think that fusion music was invented by Coke Studio, or Mekaal Hasan, or maybe even Junoon, the use of western instruments and beat structures has been prevalent for a long time in the subcontinent. The use of electronic and digital instruments in particular has been around in eastern music for at least five decades now.

Yet the only music that the subcontinent has been able to export to a mainstream global audience remains Punjabi bhangra/rap/dance/dhamaal music. From Apache Indian to Honey Singh, this is the desi beat the world gets down to.

To my uncultured mind, this made sense.

Drawing upon my experience of the sultriness of Punjabi film songs, the outrageousness of Punjabi ‘stage shows’, the ludicrously lewd diversity of Punjabi curses, and the general sense of hedonism that seemed to suffuse Punjabi culture, it was only natural that the Punjab (both the fertile sides along the border, as well as its diaspora) would lead the way in trashy-pop as well.

But where does Punjabi cuisine fit into all of this?

As a Karachiite studying in Lahore, I was initially disappointed and then affronted by the food scene in Lahore. Yes, Punjabis loved to eat, but was the quality of the cuisine really worth all the hype that surrounds Punjabis and their food?

At first, my Muhajir-grievance-seeking mind chalked this down to another example of pervasive mythologies used by Punjabis to cement their political dominance. However, over time and after many meals, I have come to revise this approach.

What vexes me now is the chasm between the flavours of what non-Punjabis identify as Punjabi culture versus flavours of the type of cuisine cooked here.

The Punjabi cuisine, as I have come to understand it, pays a lot of emphasis to richness and heft, hence the omnipresence of large chunks of meat and all kinds of creams, cheeses and other sins. Yet when it comes to flavours, the disconnect kicks in.

For all the saucy creativity of the curses, the sacrilege-inducing spicy thumkay of the dances, the chatt patti references to Billo’s house and Gaga tattoos in the lyrics, and the masalaydar mayhem in popular narratives, Punjabi cuisine bucks the trend by being largely staid and sensibly understated.

The pulao stands in as the sensible one who never joined its cousin biryani in taking psychotropic drugs. The humble chanay look down when the nauratan koftay expose themselves. The lassi, standing in its starched, asli makhan jora, winces when it sees the drunken brazenness of Ankal Salim’s Gola. Even the shami burger doesn’t dare a glance at the midriff baring red-yellow-and-green chutneys its Karachi relatives (typical burgers) dress themselves in.

It’s not an easy one to understand, at least from the outside looking in.

My current theory is that perhaps Punjabi cuisine stands as some idealised form of pre-modernity, a pillar of conservative tradition. After all, the Punjab has long been the heart of the subcontinent, forever enticing looters and plunderers who never want to leave once they arrive. Yet, for all this acceptance, perhaps the soil mourns the repeated loss of its innocence, the countless violations of its sanctity.

And so the people preserve their food as the humble, simple heart of what is now a globally dominant ethnicity. Perhaps the cuisine stands in for the core that stays untainted even as all around it is forced to be cut up, cut down, and cut out.

Perhaps the people of Punjab want their food to remind them of a past they never experienced. Or perhaps they just don’t watch enough of Zubeida Aapa.


Ahmer Naqvi is the Brian Lara of his generation – he’s a genius but his team usually loses. He blogs on his own property in Blogistan, and makes short films you can see here and here.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.