Sunday, 14 May 2017

edible islamabad and lahore

samosa chaat, mashallah chaat house
islamabad is no longer the sleepy metropolis of my girlhood. its boundaries have stretched into new sectors, swallowing land between the garrison town of rawalpindi and outwards towards the hill station of murree. i feel the change palpably on each annual visit. there is a new network of roads and a shiny new mass transit system that commands its own lane. the metrobus stations are wavelike in design and constructed of glass, allowing a clear picture of the commuters. i imagine they must be boiling in the summer when the sun shines mercilessly and the mercury is high.

there is a proliferation of malls too.

what i love of the city are the green hills that border it. march is a lovely time to visit. the days are warm coaxing flowers to blooms and leaves to appear on the trees. in my parent’s garden, the roses revealed themselves in hues of bridal red and rhubarb and custard. there were fuchsia geraniums and lines of pansies. trumpet flowers hung heavy with their fragrance. we had many cups of afternoon tea and late lunches in the garden.

i cram my trips with many meals and some sightseeing. the latter often makes me feel like a tourist in a place that i have called home. for instance, mama and i woke early on a sunday to drive to the mall in lahore. we had wanted to take pictures of the old buildings that line it. lahore’s mall road is the namesake of the mall in london. it has existed since the time of the raj and still retains its grandeur and majesty, although the passage of time is evident in the disrepair of the buildings. driving along and visiting places on mall road is as much a feature of my childhood as it is of mama’s girl and early adulthood. she took me to tollinton market, a low slung bungalow style building built in the late 1800s. it was originally used as an exhibition hall and eventually came to be used as a marketplace for household provisions. it is where mama and her parents did their shopping when they moved from england to pakistan. 

the lahore museum is a stone’s throw away distance from tollinton market. it is one of the many legacies of the mughal architecture and like many other buildings on the mall is hemmed by barbed wire, a sign of the fragile security of our times. it was one of the first museums mama took me too.

the mall is home to some beautiful art deco buildings like e plomer & co. chemists which was lahore’s first chemist and opticians. the ymca is a rather unassuming affair but with a detailed turquoise door and an angular red brick church. we ended our morning excursion on a breakfast of halwa, puri and channay in purani anarkali (the old city). the place we picked was doing brisk business. puris were being fried by a crew of three in a steady rhythm. when ready, they were placed on a plate with a scoop of halva in the centre. the channay came in a plate of their own. there was no cutlery as the puri was meant to serve as spoon and fork. we washed it down with a strong yet milky cup of tea.

halwa, puri, channay in purani anarkali, lahore
the annual trip to lahore is to visit family. mama and i drove to lahore together. we admired the lengths of sumbul (red cotton) trees that marked the roads, their large petal flowers in blazes of orange and red. i was introduced to the ‘hascol’ toilets; a paid facility that baba is particularly pleased with as he uses them to freshen up on business trips to peshawar and lahore. the motorway rest stops felt deceptively like america, marked as they were by large mcdonalds and other american fast food chains like kfc and subway. mama and i split readymade sandwiches from dunkin donuts for lunch. they were surprisingly good in the way that soft white bread with a mayonnaise based filling are. afterwards, we had ‘sensations’ tea. this was new to me and reminded me of chai lattes abroad as it is made with a powdered brew dispensed from a machine. it has a marked cardamom flavour.

lahori’s are known for their love of food and my family is no exception. at my maternal grandparents we ate an almost christmas like dinner. there is roast chicken with a crisp toffee coloured skin, red cabbage and cauliflower cheese. my paternal family threw a dinner bringing together an assortment of cousins and aunts. on the table were some of my home-cooked favourites – meaty mutton pulao cooked in stock, korma and chicken karahi and rice cooked in gurr (raw unrefined cane sugar) with cardamom and cloves. phoopo had even saved the bronzed crisped rice from the bottom called ‘saar’. 

tapal chai in the garden
in islamabad, i returned to old favourites. these included mantu and aushak, afghani kebab and kabuli pulao at kabul restaurant. i had several rounds of chaat at mashallah chaat house and even managed to tuck into the famous shami ‘unda shami’ burger. the local burgers are popular street food and are made of beef and lentil kebabs that are smashed and put into a soft milk bun along with condiments like a sweet red sauce and something hot like a green chili and mint sauce. mama and i shared a large packed of afghani chips smeared with a potent garlicky and vinegar sharp chutney. i asked the chippy whether the chutney is afghani. he shook his head solemnly and said that it was not. afghani chip stalls became common after the afghan war of the 90s which caused a mass influx of refugees into pakistan. i think it is likely that the chutney is a mixture of pakistani mint chutney with the vinegar based torshi pickle.

there are new places too like the industrial chic loafology or diner like burning brownie. the latter does an excellent brunch, particularly omelettes and thick slices of custardy french toast. alia and murad took me to khoka kola. it has old school charm, a stellar playlist and very good food. the butter chicken deserves mention and alia would have you know that the kulfi is akin to the one her mother used to make.

we managed a few family dinners. mama made her signature beef salad of bitter leaves, onions and beef tenderloin along with potato salad. i made baba caramel custard which happens to be one of his favourite desserts. one afternoon, alia came along with her homemade coffee ice-cream. it was really delicious as it had a strong espresso flavour. murad and i both thought it tasted like rocco’s coffee ice cream that we were addicted to.

aushak at kabul restaurant
a fortnight is too narrow a window to do all the things i wanted to do. i missed the drive to pir sohawa with its roadside snacks of pakoras with milky sweet tea. baba had planned to take us for a family picnic to attock as well as kebabs in the old city in pindi, none of which happened. this year i even missed our father-daughter ritual of an afternoon in his office, although i did manage to be there for the launch of ‘aleph’ which mama guest edited and heard both alia and mama speak at a panel.

as they say, there is always a next time. 

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