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  • Bryan Santos

11.1.2020 Dinner in Lahore




The Menu


Vegetable Samosas


Samosa, sambusa, sanbosag. A dish that arrived in the Subcontinent alongside Central Asian invaders, and came to stay. Today, this dish - a triangular pastry with spicy filling - is among the most common street foods in all of Pakistan. The simplicity and variability of this delectable pocket of dough has made it a beloved snack throughout the world, where it has taken many different iterations with each regional palate. In our opinion, the best ones are filled with savory potatoes and peas; who doesn’t like carbs on carbs? Contains wheat, vegan.


Chikar Cholay


Chikar is Punjabi for mud, the sludge left over from last night’s rain. This popular street food gets the name from its texture—roughly mashed chickpeas simmered for hours with a mango powder that gives it distinctive tanginess. Contains milk, vegetarian, gluten free.


Beef Nihari


Some might argue that the nihari capital of Pakistan is Karachi, home to immigrants from India who brought it along with them when they migrated to the port city. The best we’ve had, though, was at Waris Nihari, a tiny, unassuming establishment in Old Lahore. This stew of slow-cooked beef and spices is said to be the traditional breakfast of Mughal royalty (nahaar means “daytime” in Arabic). They would have it after the morning prayer; according to legend, it would make them promptly pass out again until the afternoon prayer. Contains wheat, milk.


Cucumber Raita


Yogurt is king in Punjab. As a primarily agrarian society, rural Punjab holds its livestock dear - in villages, it is still common to pay a condolence visit after the death of a cow. Yogurt is used in breakfast, as a meat tenderizer, and as a base for this ubiquitous condiment. Mixed with cucumbers, cilantro, and mint, it serves as the perfect accompaniment to the fiery cholay and nihari. Contains milk, vegetarian, gluten free.


Roti


Scoop for curry, accompaniment to chai, beloved staple - this flatbread unites all of Pakistan in a way no other food can. Traditionally made of whole grain flour it is unleavened, unlike its cousin the naan. Roti is such a ubiquitous part of Pakistani food that the colloquial way of asking if someone wants food is, “Roti khayenge?” Will you eat roti? The answer is always yes. Contains wheat, milk, vegetarian.


Kheer


This popular rice pudding is a mainstay of all major celebrations - Eid, your cousin’s wedding, feasts at the saint’s shrine. Our version comes with slices of almond, hints of nutmeg and cardamom, and a dash of rose water. Contains milk, almonds, vegetarian, gluten free.


Lassi


Historically, the farmer’s lunch in rural Punjab was roti cooked in a clay oven alongside a tall glass of lassi, a drink made by churning cream into buttermilk and blending with water, salt, and sugar. While lassi in America has become most commonly associated with the sweetened mango version, lassis in Pakistan take many forms, from heavily spiced to light and tangy. Lahoris, true to their reputation, use whole-milk yogurt instead of buttermilk, and we’ve done the same. Contains milk, vegetarian, gluten free.






The History


Jis Lahore nai dekhya o jamyai nai,” goes the Punjabi saying; you haven’t lived if you haven’t seen Lahore. To unfurl this adage, one could say that you haven’t eaten until you’ve had Lahori cuisine. Both Forrest and I can attest to this fact. Our love affair with Punjabi food runs deep - me, I literally married a Pakistani Punjabi, and Forrest spent years going to Northwest India for work.


So how does one even begin to describe Lahore or Punjabi cuisine more broadly? Perhaps we start with the story of the Grand Trunk Road, a historic highway that once ran from Chittagong to Kabul, connecting South Asia to Central Asia, passing through cities that to this day owe their significance to this proximity. As an important stop on this road, Lahore has always been host to traders and invaders alike. After the British East India Company seized the city in 1846, Lahore continued to be of strategic importance. They built a railroad connecting it to the rest of India - extractive colonialism at its most practical. Today, however, the city is most ardently associated with the Mughal Empire, a time that saw Lahore at its most prosperous, a dynasty that gifted it the gardens and forts and mosques it is so beloved for.


If Lahore’s proximity to the GT Road has influenced its culture, its central position in Punjab has greatly shaped its cuisine. Literally translated to “Land of the 5 Rivers,” Punjab is the agricultural breadbasket of both Pakistan and Northwest India. The abundance of seasonal, fresh fruits and vegetables led to a predominantly vegetarian canvas upon which various outside cuisines have painted. From Alexander the Great to Tamerlane to Babar-e-Azam, various influences have made Punjabi food a melange of Indo - Persian - Mughal - Afghani cuisines. Central Asians brought the tandoor, the oven that produces the beloved chicken tikkas and roasted naans. Persians brought samosas and fresh paneer, both now staples of Subcontinental cuisine worldwide. Afghanis brought fresh fruits and nuts, the Mughals rose water and cardamom, the Arabs cumin and coriander, and the Portuguese tomatoes and chiles.


And we still haven’t mentioned ghee, the buttery, golden oil that takes everything to the next luscious level. Milk, yogurt, butter, cream, and ghee are in literally everything Punjabi, uniting all factions - Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus - across the arbitrarily created but ardently enforced border. So it’s no wonder why Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the leader of the Sikh empire centralized in Lahore, sanctified Punjabi cuisine as the standard of the ‘good life’. The Lahore of today battles other problems—gaping wealth inequalities, the smog of industrial South Asia, the continuing absence of women in public spaces. However, the one thing that goes uncontested is this - it has the best food Pakistan offers, according to this very neutral Punjabi-in-law, anyway.


Much to the dismay of my wife, but to the broader point of this menu, the only real Urdu or Punjabi I know is food related. I stumble my way across Pakistan in my broken Urdu, linguistically faux-pas-ing left, right, and center, but when I sit down in a Lahori dhaba I know exactly what to do. I know my daals from my dahi, my keema from my karahis, my paya from my puris, my saags from my shorbas, and my tarkas from my tikkas. Punjabi food, whether you realize it or not, is the kind of food that has been globalized as generically “Indian” all over the world. While Pakistani cuisine is often overshadowed by that of its more populous neighbor, everytime I return to Pakistan I’m blown away by the complexity of the food and the incredible hospitality. Lahore, in particular, is the glutton’s dream city, a kaleidoscope of fragrances and textures that turn up the dial on your tastebuds and forever sear themselves onto your mind.



Featured Recipe: Chikar Cholay




Makes 4 servings

  • ½ cup vegetable oil

  • 2 medium onions, chopped

  • 1 potato, boiled

  • 2 14 oz cans of chickpeas, drained

  • Separate ½ cup of chickpeas from the rest

  • 2 tbsp ginger garlic paste (or 1 tbsp finely chopped ginger and 1 tbsp finely chopped garlic)

  • 1 tsp salt

  • 1 tsp red chile flakes

  • ½ - 1 tsp red chile powder depending on how spicy you like it

  • ¼ tsp turmeric powder

  • ½ tsp black pepper powder

  • 1 tbsp coriander powder

  • 1 tbsp cumin powder

  • 1 tbsp amchoor powder (dried mango powder)

  • 1.5 cups water

  • 4 tbsp whole milk yogurt

  • Fresh cilantro, chopped


  1. Heat the vegetable oil in a medium size pot over medium heat and add the onions. Fry until they are golden, about 10 minutes

  2. While the onions are frying, add the boiled potato and ½ cup of chickpeas to a food processor and process until it becomes a smooth, thick puree

  3. Add the ginger garlic paste to the onions and cook until it is fragrant, about 1-2 minutes

  4. Add the salt, red chile flakes, red chile powder and turmeric and mix well. Let the spices toast for about 2-3 minutes

  5. Add the potato / chickpea puree to the spiced onions and mix until it is well incorporated and begins to bubble. If the mixture is getting too thick or stiff, add some water until it has a thick, but loose, consistency

  6. Add the black pepper, coriander, cummin, and amchoor powder and let the flavor blend together for 2-3 minutes

  7. Add the remaining chickpeas and coat them evenly in the spiced paste. Let them come up to temperature and add the water. Mix well until everything is well incorporated and the curry comes to a boil

  8. Cover the pot, reduce the heat, and let it simmer for 20-25 minutes, stirring every so often to prevent it from sticking

  9. Add the yogurt and blend well. It may curdle a bit, but will go away. Cook for another 10 minutes uncovered

  10. Remove from heat and serve, garnishing with fresh cilantro



Recipes Inspired By:

  1. Kitchen with Shazia, one of YouTube’s most popular Pakistani aunties

  2. Pakistan’s version of Tasty, Food Fusion is a treasure trove of fun Pakistani recipes

  3. A must have for Asian food in general, Charmaine Solomon’s encyclopedic knowledge of Asian food is unmatched


Additional Resources:

  1. Saba Imtiaz, telling you the things you need to know before going to Lahore

  2. Mohsin Hamid’s cult classic debut, set in the elite Lahore of the ‘90s

  3. A deep dive into gender segregation at traditional restaurants in Lahore and Punjab

  4. While this is about India’s Punjabi region, many aspects of the cuisine transcend the border

  5. One of my favorite food bloggers, Mark Weins did an amazing tour of Pakistan and wrote two great pieces about Punjab and Nihari

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