Ah, the not-so-humble date. Across the Islamic world, Muslims break their fast with a piece (or two, or three) of date, following the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad, who would break his fast with dates and holy water (in fact, the date is mentioned over 20 times in the Quran). They’re a staple in Ramadan, and in fact you know Ramadan is around the corner when you see street vendors stocking up on these. While the simple date is a thing of beauty in itself, you can never go wrong with a stuffed date. The areas of Northwest Pakistan and Eastern Afghanistan are incredibly fertile (especially for fruits, nuts and resulting oils) during the spring and summers but the harsh winters caused by the rugged mountainous landscape mean that dried fruits and nuts are a staple in Pashtun cuisine. Here, we’ve stuffed the dates with almonds and walnuts. (Contains almonds, walnuts, dairy; vegetarian, no gluten)
Lal Lobia ki Chaat
No Iftari, the fast-breaking meal served at dusk, is complete without some kind of chaat—a savory snack that comes in all shapes, but often involving some kind of lentils or beans along with tomatoes, onions, and the all important chaat masala. Peshawar is located in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province of Pakistan, formerly known as the North-West Frontier Province (a carryover from colonial times). The area north of the Peshawari basin, in the high altitudes of the Hindu Kush mountain range, is perfect for growing red kidney beans (lal lobia). This isn’t particularly surprising as the beans themselves were brought to the Indian subcontinent from the high altitudes of Peru (via Mexico). KP lobia is renowned throughout Pakistan for its softness and taste, so unlike other parts of the country, Peshawaris prefer their chaat with red kidney beans instead of chickpeas. For more information on the history of chaat in the subcontinent, check out our write up on Delhi. With mint, cilantro, cumin, black salt, and honey, it’s a spicy, tangy dish we hope you like much as we do! (Vegetarian, no gluten)
While paneer, fresh South Asian cheese, is a ubiquitous presence in parts of India, it is not that commonly found in Pakistan. Pashtuns, however, are an exception, and eat paneer and other varieties of cheese on a regular basis. The origins of paneer are somewhat nebulous - with the standard notion being that the Portuguese were the first to introduce the heat + acid method of cheese making to the subcontinent (paneer is traditionally made by cutting milk with sour milk, yogurt, or whey as the splitting agent). However, it’s more likely, especially in Pashtun culinary history, that cheese and fermented dairy products were introduced by nomadic tribes from Central Asia. Nowadays, it is difficult to find true Pashtun-style cheese outside of someone’s house, and paneer has become more common. Normally, it is deep fried in batter, similar to a pakora. But we have cooked it in a cashew and tomato-based gravy, sometimes called shahi paneer. You may notice that the gravy tastes similar to the makhani or tikka masala sauce we’re familiar with in the US. Check out our write up on daal makhani and notice that the dish the world now associates with Delhi was actually created by Kundan lal Gujral at his restaurant Mukhey da Dhaba in pre-partition Peshawar! (Contains cashews, dairy; vegetarian, no gluten)
Certainly the single most popular dish in all of Peshawar and the KP province, chapli kebabs (specifically Peshawari chapli kebabs) turn every meat-eating Pakistani into a salivating diner. Pashtun cuisine distinguishes itself from most South Asian food by being very meat-centric, with a grilling tradition that has its roots in Central Asia that go back to warriors roasting meat on their swords. In fact, traditionally, even vegetable oils were eschewed in favor of animal fat. And this leads us to the perfection of meat in the chapli kebab—ground beef mixed with coriander and pomegranate seeds, then fried in beef tallow. It’s named after chappal, or slipper, for its very flat shape, and a visit to Peshawar will take you past dozens of men throwing thin discs of meat into shallow pools of oil, turning the outside crisp and leaving the inside tender (check out the cauldron that is the pride of any dhaba specializing in chapli kebabs). Moreover, Iftar foods in Pakistan are often fried—samosay, fried fritters, and so on. The chapli kebab checks that box as well! (Contains eggs)
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 gluten, dairy; vegetarian)
While Peshawar lies on the Western end of the British Raj, its ties with the region that lies further west are much more ancient and historic. The border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is porous, contentious, and has been the source of pain and trouble for inhabitants on either side. Known as the Durand Line, this border was the result of a single-page agreement between the British (who had a penchant for lines on maps) and the Afghani Emir. Today, it’s known as one of the worst artificially-created borders in the world, dividing the Pashtuns between Afghanistan and Pakistan. And yet, being as porous as it is, it has kept up the historical connection between Kabul and Peshawar, the two major cities on either side of the Khyber Pass. Pashtuns live on both sides of the border, speaking very similar languages and eating foods that have roots in the same, rugged geography. So, while this dish of rice cooked in lamb broth with caramelized carrots, raisins, and nuts, is called Kabuli pulao, it is all over the street food scene of Peshawar. The wars in Afghanistan have also led to refugee movement into Peshawar and the rest of Pakistan, leading to the export of Afghan cuisine (and especially Afghani BBQ) around the country. (Contains almonds)
Okay, hear us out. Vermicelli mixed with saffron and cardamom spiced condensed milk, topped with rose syrup, mango, almonds and chia seeds. Does that not sound like a delicious, refreshing treat after a day of abstaining from food and water, as well as a wonderful way to end this decadent feast? Falooda is a very common dessert all over Pakistan, and is especially welcome during summer Ramadans. It is often served with ice cream, or freezing cold as is the case with our version. Falooda is an ancient dessert that originated in the Persian city of Shiraz - the earliest known mention of this dish is from 400 BC. Since then it has traveled from Persia, throughout the Indian subcontinent and may even be the backbone to similar desserts such as halo-halo in the Philippines. Legend goes that Falooda was a refreshing drink for the Mughal royalty, one of Jahangir’s favorites. It has since democratized to become one of the most ubiquitous desserts all over the region, particularly for special occasions. (Contains gluten, dairy, almonds; vegetarian)
While the rest of the country does regular chai—black tea leaves cooked in water and milk—Pashtuns are known for their green tea culture. There are vendors scattered all over Peshawar’s Qissa Khwani Bazaar, doling out green tea in copper kettles, serving it in small, chipped cups that somehow make everything taste better. Tea has to be made fresh, so we can’t quite do it like these vendors, but check out our Featured Recipe if you’d like to make it at home!
So many of our write-ups begin with disclaimers, requests that the reader forgive us our clear bias towards the place. Today’s disclaimer is particularly significant. My wife is Pakistani, and I’ve spent several months in the country, out of which a week was spent in Peshawar and its adjoining province—a week that is forever emblazoned onto my senses.
The Northwestern part of Pakistan, where Peshawar is located, is considered the meeting point of Central and South Asia. Nearby lies the famed Khyber Pass, which Kipling called “a sword cut through mountains,” a narrow gap in the Hindu Kush Mountains that has indelibly changed the course of South Asian history. This pass is where invaders from Central Asia came, most notably the Mughals that went on to create a centuries-long empire in South Asia, giving the world poetry and the Taj Mahal before they were replaced by British colonial rule. In the heart of modern Peshawar, one can still find remains of the caravanserai, or traveler’s inn, built during the Mughal period.
However, the mingling of faiths and culture in Peshawar and its neighboring areas far precedes the Mughals. Two hours east of Peshawar lies Taxila, one of the oldest Buddhist sites in the world. Between Taxila and Peshawar lies Gurdwara Punja Sahib, an important Sikh shrine that attracts thousands of pilgrims across the Indian border every year. And if you go to Peshawar today, you will find streets become deserted after the call to Islamic prayer rings. We learned this while on a bus from the northern Chitral valley to Peshawar, which took at least two additional hours because the driver made a pit stop for four different prayers.
Look, let’s not beat around the bush. There’s a neat narrative that Peshawar gets tied into by all of Western media. It’s sexy and dangerous. The unruly northwestern frontier of a dangerous country, sharing a contentious border with Afghanistan, that other dangerous country. Flush with leftover arms from the Soviet-Afghan war of the eighties. Birthplace of the Taliban. The distinctive shuttlecock burqa of the women. Etc. etc. But you know what? You can find all of that with a Google search, or in a Rudyard Kipling book, or in the analysis of some hawkish “Af-Pak expert.”
I’m here to tell you, instead, that in the days I spent in Peshawar, I felt even more welcome than we do in the rest of the country—and trust me, Pakistanis know how to welcome. With my dark brown hair and light skin, I often passed off as Pashtun myself (north of Peshawar are the Kalash, people who trace lineage back to the conquering armies of Alexander the Great). Of course, one word of broken Urdu, uttered in my unmistakably American accent, gave the game away, after which my wife and I were told, everywhere we went—you are our guest. The tribes that have inhabited the area have a longstanding code of ethics called the Pashtunwali that insists on boundless hospitality. A traffic warden let our law-breaking rickshaw driver go after seeing that he was driving around guests from abroad. And how do I describe the unthinking hospitality of the tea-stall owner, who, seeing us take respite from the May sun in his shop, told us we owed him nothing for his fragrant green tea with lemon? We still paid, of course, but my larger point is that wherever we went in Peshawar, we were told, feel at home.
While Pashtun culture is the prevalent one in Peshawar, the Pashtuns are perhaps the most diasporic of Pakistan’s ethnicities. We met them in the far north, helping build treacherous mountain highways. We saw them in the Punjabi plains, working as day laborers, earning money to send home. Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, has had a significant Pashtun population for many decades. And in recent years, they have been visible at the helm of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, a non-violent social movement that advocates for ethnic Pashtuns who have been affected by the war against the Taliban.
And we haven’t even gotten started on the food! While food in the eastern parts of the country is vegetable-forward—the influence of Hindu vegetarianism along with farmable land filled with fresh produce—being a vegetarian in Peshawar would be tough. This is lamb country. Animal fat is abundantly used, especially from the tails of the hilarious looking fat-tailed sheep raised in the region—look them up! There’s grilling and roasting and charring. There’s fried meat and saucy meat. Unlike Punjab and Sindh, there isn’t a lot of heat to these dishes, and in fact, the presence of fruits and nuts in main dishes turns many of them savory-sweet. All of this is washed down with a cup of green tea infused with cardamom, like the one we had at Peshawar’s famed Qissa Khawani Bazaar. Find us a more poetic name for a market—The Storytellers’ Market, where once upon a time, travelers of the Silk Road gathered to rest and share stories and, yes, offer each other that universal symbol of hospitality—a cup of tea.
Featured Recipe: Peshawari Kawa
Makes 3 servings
2 tsp green tea
3 cardamom pods, slightly bruised
4 cups of water
Lemon or sugar to taste
Place the cardamom pods in the water and let it come to a boil
Once boiling, add the green tea leaves and bring it back to a simmer. Turn off the heat and strain
Add a squeeze of lemon juice or a pinch of sugar to taste
Featured Recipe: Lal Lobia ki Chaat
Makes 4 servings
2 cans dark red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 green chilis, cut small (deseed depending on desired spice)
1 medium tomato
1 medium onion, finely diced
3 tbsp lemon juice
1.5 tsp chaat masala
1 tsp cumin powder
½ tsp red chili powder
½ tsp crushed red chili
½ tsp salt
1 tsp black salt (available at Patel Brothers)
1 tbsp honey
Mix the red kidney beans with the chaat masala, cumin powder, red chili powder, crushed red chilis, salt, and black salt. Mix to incorporate
Add chilis, tomatoes, onions, lemon juice, cilantro, mint and honey. Mix well and adjust for seasoning
Recipes Inspired By:
Pakistan’s version of Tasty, Food Fusion is a treasure trove of fun Pakistani recipes
A must have for Asian food in general; Charmaine Solomon’s encyclopedic knowledge of Indian and Pakistani food is unmatched
Read Samin Nosrat’s homage to the chapli kebab here
This wonderful novel is set in the Logar Province of Afghanistan; the author, Jamil Jan Kochai, is a proud Afghan but has lived in Peshawar for a few years, and Pakistanis love to think of him as partly theirs as well!
This homage to Peshawari food by Mark Wein's is worth looking at for the photos alone!
An ode to Peshawar’s historic market
More information on the Durand Line, the border separating Afghanistan and Pakistan