Borders, Bakeries, and Biryani : Indo-Pak Relations through a Foodie’s lens
By Amogha Sharma, UG'23
Imagine walking down a narrow street, awakened by the heady aroma of assorted breakfast staples: halwa-poori, chole-kulche, nihari, lassi and chai, in the middle of a bazaar on a cold Saturday morning. You and several others crowding the street survive the cold damp air by donning thick shawls and sweaters; ably assisted in this necessary endeavour by the winter sun overhead and the peculiar warmth supplied by the throngs surrounding each food stall. Does this remind you of any street in particular?
While my inspiration behind this (imaginary) breakfast scene is the old streets that shape Purani Dilli, I am tempted to argue (an argument which would have crumbled in the absence of food and travel vlogs) that further north, on the other side of the border lies a street uncannily resembling the one I believe resides within Delhi. Tucked away in Pakistan’s Punjab, Lahore stands so close in imagination, and yet remains very far away in ideology and reality. Fascinatingly, a closer look at the gastronomical culture of the two cities – and the two nations – greatly reduces this distance.
It is interesting how many of the popular dishes consumed in the subcontinent have a long and complex history, and remain practically inseparable from human migration. There are countless dishes that people from both countries enjoy: Samosa, Biryani, Kebabs, Kulfi and Falooda. A quick search on the origins of Biryani, a beloved dish on both sides of the border, will lead you to many myths. Derived from Persian terminology, some argue that it was Timur the Lame who brought the prototype of the dish with him, while others believe it arrived with Arab merchants to Southern India first. Another popular story goes that it was Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who first had this dish prepared for the imperial army. Today a favourite in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the Biryani has many varied preparations which bring out subtle differences in terms of flavours.
The invention of a popular summer drink on both sides of the border, Rooh Afza owes its existence to the unbearable Delhi heat and the resulting resolve of Hakim Abdul Majeed, the founder of Hamdard, to create a drink that could beat the heat. With the Partition of the subcontinent, the Company also divided itself and travelled to Karachi and Dhaka, where it established more branches. Reportedly, when India was facing a Rooh Afza shortage during the month of Ramzan a couple of years ago, Hamdard Pakistan offered to send its products via the Wagah Border with the Indian government’s permission.
Amidst the many recognizable dishes that the travel bloggers I was watching dug into, a certain emerald-green drink remained shrouded in unfamiliarity for me. Pakola – think: Pakistani Cola – was created by the Teli Family that migrated from Dhoraji in India to Pakistan during Partition. Just as is the case with Rooh Afza, Pakola is often served with chilled milk and sold at several roadside stands during the hot summer months in Karachi.
I was once told that Karachi is to Pakistan as Mumbai is to India. It reminded me of Bandra’s Karachi Bakery in Mumbai back then, and even more so now that it has been shut down. Only a few months ago, the bakery made headlines as it faced major opposition from the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) for its name. While the Vice President of the MNS claimed that the shop has been shut following their protests, this was denied by the people associated with the Bakery who cited other reasons for closing down the bakery.
The original Karachi Bakery was set up in Hyderabad in 1953 by Khanchand Ramnani, who had migrated from Sindh, before it spread across the country. It is an icon which is renowned in Hyderabad most famously for its fruit biscuits and dilkush, among many other baked goods. When addressing the controversy related to its name in an interview, Ramnani had claimed that his Karachi biscuits are as Hyderabadi as Biryani and Haleem.
Hyderabad’s Karachi Bakery inevitably led me to Hyderabad’s Bombay Bakery – only the latter is located in Hyderabad, Sindh. It is even more amusing when you think about them in the context of what you’ve read so far. An institution in itself, the Bombay Bakery is more than a century old and is yet to experience a dip in its popularity. Every day, a long queue of loyal customers, many of whom are from outside the city, forms outside the bakery as they wait their turn to buy the rich and decadent cakes. Given the high demand, the Bakery does not sell more than two cakes per customer, and even then, many have no option but to return home empty handed.
As was the case prior to Partition, the tradition of naming eateries and bakeries after each other’s cities continued after the division. Amritsari Dahi Bhallay in Lahore, Delhi Sweet Palace and Bakers in Okara, Meerath Kabab House in Karachi, Multan Biscuit Bakery and Peshawari Chicken Corner in Delhi are cases in point.
A place that truly diffuses the distance between the two nations through food is quite ironically, the Sarhad – meaning, border – located close to the India-Pakistan border in Punjab. By drawing inspiration from the Punjab on both sides, the restaurant offers a glimpse into the culture and cuisine of Lahore and Amritsar. It also displays Lahore’s famous truck art through two mini-trucks parked in the restaurant, which have both been painted by Pakistan’s celebrated artist, Haider Ali.
Established in 2012, Sarhad is the innovation of Aman Jaspal, who as a bureaucrat’s son had often accompanied his father to Pakistan on India’s initiatives with Pakistan. Describing Sarhad, he remarked that their food becomes better because of the whole ambience around it.
In a lovely conversation with him years after I had visited Sarhad, Mr. Jaspal recounted that he had imagined Sarhad as a concept to promote the message of co-existence.
“I am not a foodie, I am not a chef,” he admitted when asked about his favourite dish from Sarhad, to which his response was Miyan Ji Ki Dal. While the menu includes varieties of Naan, Bakarkhani Roti, Nihari Ghosht, Dal Makhani, Kebabs and Biryani, he explained that they got the recipe for Miyan Ji ki Dal from a renowned local Dhaba on the Lahore-Islamabad G.T. Road. Even the spices are sourced from Lahore itself. Sarhad also keeps other food items from well-known brands and eateries, such as sweetmeats and biscuits, for visitors to taste.
In spite of the high cost incurred on setting up and running Sarhad, Mr. Jaspal had decided to go ahead and pursue the project. He expressed that independent initiatives which do not involve any government assistance, such as his, need to be promoted so that more people are encouraged to come into this sphere.
It is becoming increasingly common to pick and focus on differences in food and eating habits, and to employ these as a tool to discriminate. However, as a significant part of South Asian culture, food ideally should and can often help bring people closer to one another. Sarhad, among so many others, stands as a testament to that.