With a history of migration, invasion, partition and trade, Pakistan’s cooks draw from a wide range of culinary influences. Over centuries, Persian, Afghan, Indian, Middle Eastern, central Asian and Mongol flavours have combined to create an exciting and varied but little-known cuisine.
Meat is a favourite among Pakistanis, with mutton, goat and beef dominating, but simple and seasonal vegetable side dishes are always on offer, as well as pickles, breads and flavourful pulao rice dishes. The layering of ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ spices – and the use of cooking techniques such as tempering (bagar), barbecuing, and cooking under steam (dum) – are defining characteristics of cooking in this country.
For Pakistanis, eating is a form of entertainment, often played out at street food stalls and roadside restaurants. Huge families pile into cars on weekends in search of barbecued meats, spit-roasted spiced chicken and nihari (slow-cooked beef or lamb curry) or haleem (a wheat, lamb and lentil stew). And the hospitable nature of Pakistani people means no one ever leaves someone’s home without being fed.
Dishes vary significantly across the country. The north is dominated by simple mountain cooking, heavy with animal fats, pasta-based soups (Chitrali kali) and herbs such as thyme. Peshawar is famous for chapali (large flat kebabs with dried pomegranate) and namkeen gosht (salted goat meat). In the fertile Punjab, the mighty Indus river brings freshwater fish to menus in places such as Lahore, an ancient Mughal city that lives to eat; while Karachi (on the Arabian Sea) has a well-deserved reputation for its seafood (the spicy crab lollipops and palla fish are legendary).
A casual, partly open-air restaurant in Lahore, Dera serves authentic Lahori-style dishes such as paya (goat trotter stew), saron ka saag and makkai ki roti (mustard greens with corn bread) and delicious salty lassi, kulfi and faluda (ice-cream float).
One of the oldest barbecue restaurants in Karachi, this is an institution that never fails to please. Known for local seafood,
it features many traditional Pakistani grilled and barbecued dishes, such as reshmi kebabs, lamb chops and chicken tikka on the bone (and its famous spicy plum chutney is delicious).
With stunning views of the Badshahi mosque, Andaaz is set in Lahore’s historical walled city and serves delicious tandoori dishes and Mughal specialties. Try the murgh kabab badami (chicken kebabs with toasted almonds, cardamom and chilli) and a cup of Kashmiri pink tea with pistachios, too.
A balmy Arabian sea breeze makes this partially open-air restaurant in Karachi worth the drive. The food is cooked in front of you, and dishes include barbecued mutton paya, Afghan boti, Hunzai kebabs and namkeen (salted) mutton chops. The mutton ribs are to die for.
The Hidden Paradise
Off the beaten track with breathtaking views of Ultar (a sub-range of the Karakoram mountains) and Altit Fort serving Hunzai cuisine. Stop for an apricot juice, curd cheese, shapz dodo (meat noodle soup) and shoro (spiced mince-stuffed chapati). Bazaar Road, Karimabad, Hunza; 00 92 582 157 464
Trust olive: Born and raised in Pakistan, Sumayya Usmani is a food writer and teacher now based in Glasgow. Her latest book is Summers Under the Tamarind Tree, a memoir-based cookbook about Pakistani food (£20, Frances Lincoln).
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We chat to food writer, cookery teacher and author Sumayya Usmani about the unique flavours of Pakistani cuisine.