Bari Eid (Eid-ul-Adha just doesn’t roll down us old timers’ tongues quite as smoothly) cannot hold a candle to the breezy, bangle-full joys of the Chhoti. Less mithaai, no Eidee (that being a good or bad thing depending on whether you are on the giving or receiving end) and an overdose of animals bleating pitiably from all intersections of my otherwise violence-free neighbourhood don’t exactly goad me to go celebrating in the streets.
Plus, I am that rare breed of Lahori – a non-meat eater. Having ‘converted’ just 6 months ago though, I doubt I have yet been officially anointed to the smug upper crust of humanitarian do-gooders to make a self-righteous lecture on the benefits of not killing animals permissible. So I’ll lure you with food instead.
The author at a vegetarian restaurant in Brighton
Now that you are stuffed up to the tip of your food canals with the brains and guts of a variety of slaughtered animals it might be a good idea to scale back with some healthy vegetarian meals, which contrary to popular belief can be located in Pakistan with a little bit of effort, at least in the bigger cities.
The idea of vegetarianism can come across as a bit self-important
One of the difficulties of choosing a vegetarian meal here is that most times chicken isn’t even considered a form of meat. Try ordering a vegetarian dish and waiters and restaurant managers will attempt to pass off anything with chicken and bits of vegetable thrown in for colour as ‘vegetarian’. Admittedly, in a country where human life is cheaper than poultry the idea of vegetarianism can come across as a bit self-important. Most reactions move somewhat along the lines of George Orwell’s indictment of vegetarians, who in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) called vegetarianism an affront to decent people and the obsession of the ‘food crank… out of touch with common humanity’. It was, he thought, a symptom of the hijacking of the socialist cause by ‘every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, pacifist, and feminist in England’.
Hmm…don’t think Orwell and I would have got along ragingly.
Luckily, (for those who rely on famous people quotes for arriving at ideological decisions), George Bernard Shaw made an equally strong statement in favour of vegetarianism a few decades before Orwell, one that sits well with ‘food cranks’ like me. When asked in 1898 why he was a vegetarian, Shaw gave a typically outspoken answer:
“Oh, come! That boot is on the other leg. Why should you call me to account for eating decently? If I battened on the scorched corpses of animals, you might well ask me why I did that.”
“My will contains directions for my funeral, which will be followed, not by mourning coaches, but by herds of oxen, sheep, swine, flocks of poultry, and a small travelling aquarium of live fish, all wearing white scarves in honor of the man who perished rather than eat his fellow-creatures. It will be, with the single exception of Noah’s Ark, the most remarkable thing of the kind yet seen.”
Vegetarian version of the Korean Bibimbap can now be enjoyed in Lahore
Even if your wish to engage with non-meat dishes has nothing to do with sparing other living beings from harm, you could choose to spend meat-free days, weeks or even months for a number of good reasons, ranging from the environmental, an attempt to detox your body from hormones and chemicals often found in meats, to simply getting away from the constant heaviness of meat-abundant food.
The roadside dhaaba:
Nihaari, paae, maghaz and takaa tak might be the immediate images the idea of Lahori food conjures up, but there are certain non-meat dishes too that are an intrinsic part of its food culture. No lazy Lahori Sunday is complete without halwa puri or chanay kulchay. Ironically, the best I have ever had outside of the old city are from a place in Cantt called Zakir Tikka.
Since turning vegetarian I have become a troublesome dinner companion; friends have to be mindful of vegetarian options on the menu before choosing a restaurant. Over the course of time, however, I have learnt that one can wangle a vegetarian dish or two out of most establishments, though not all these dishes or restaurants are made equal.
Lahore’s Andaaz restaurant serves some of the best vegetarian dishes in the city
The best daals and sabzis are found at roadside dhaabaas. It’s hard to vouch for the quality of the cooking oil or the hygienic conditions under which they are cooked, but purely in terms of taste, none of the high-end eateries can come close to the daal and karak tandoori roti combination of the local dhaaba, that too at dirt-cheap prices.
Ghar ki Murghi:
Interestingly, one of the very few people in the food business in Lahore who provide serious vegetarian options are an up and coming online food service Ghar ki Murghi. Operating largely off their Facebook page, these young entrepreneurs are catering to a niche market most big restaurants don’t really consider worth their while. With a jazzy menu offering ‘Toofani Tamaatar ka Cut’ and ‘Maskhari Mirchi Saalan’ to the newly introduced ‘Lajawaab Lasagne’ with a vegetarian option, Ghar ki Murghi is expanding the Lahori food connoisseur’s taste buds to include a variety of flavours that can be just as satisfying as meat.
Halwa puri – a staple Lahori breakfast
In the same vein, Karachi based food service Simple Dimple offers a tofu option for almost everything on their menu, something sadly missing from even the most high end restaurants in Lahore.
High end restaurants:
The first time I was introduced to paneer tikka was in a Dubai food court: I returned from the ladies room to find my staunchly vegetarian friend cheerily tucking into what looked very much like a full plate of chicken tikka. The texture and taste was so ‘realistic’ I couldn’t tell for several minutes that it was in fact made of cottage cheese; hence my vexation at never having been able to find an equivalent in Lahore. The only two places in Lahore that serve paneer tikka are Mirchi and Andaaz. The one at Mirchi doesn’t deserve to be called by that name, but like everything else at Andaaz, their paneer tikka is rich and succulent.
Andaaz is the only restaurant in Lahore that has a full menu of vegetarian dishes, possibly because of tourists who can be found more readily around the Badshahi Mosque than anywhere else in the city. Besides the paneer tikaa, their daal makhni is a treat.
The Gulberg branch of BBQ Tonight serves the best Paalak Paneer this side of the Ravi, and a Hummus of just the right consistency and taste, something that cannot be said for any other I have had outside of the Middle-East.
Here and there:
Several restaurants have one or two vegetarian dishes on the menu that make them worth a visit. The new Korean restaurant in Lahore, Udon House serves a delicious vegetarian Bipimbap and a decent vegetarian soup, though it doesn’t have any equivalent of the fried bean curd served by the Korean in Karachi. You can find fresh vegetarian sushi at Fujiyama and the same at Sakura as well as a great (though small serving) of a tofu appetizer on skewers (with a very difficult name I always fail to recall).
There is Café Upstairs’ mushrooms-in-white-sauce appetizer and stuffed green peppers, margherita and vegetarian pizzas at most pizza joints, Fatburger’s vegetarian burger (the only vegetarian burger in Lahore I know of), Polo Lounge’s divine Summer Salad, Salt ‘n ‘ Pepper’s trusty old assorted salad, Dampukht’s vegetable biryani (with the crunchy goodness of cashew and hints of sweetness from kishmish) and of course desserts anywhere, most of which contain no meat content.
Sabeen Mahmud of T2F
Oftentimes people give up on vegetarianism as a lifestyle option for the lack of support amongst friends and family. I draw great sustenance from fellow ‘grass-eaters’, one of whom is Sabeen Mahmud, founder of T2F, a space for intellectual discourse in Karachi. Sabeen says:
“I became a committed vegetarian on 6th September 2011 right after burying my kitten, Tetris. I made a decision to choose compassion over killing. I started thinking about my food choices and realized that what I choose to eat is intrinsically linked with my ethics and world view. By not buying meat and chicken, I have also withdrawn financial support from the ecosystem of animal cruelty.
My favorite vegetarian eating out options in Karachi include Mirchi’s chaats, Cool Inn’s dosa, BOT’s aaloo paratha, Tipu Burger’s daal bun kabab, Spicez’s vegetarian Sindhi biryani, and T2F’s vegetable panini.”
So if you’re in either Karachi or Lahore, get out there and try something new.
Published in The Friday Times (18th to 24th October, 2013)