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The Tale of Two Cities

31 Dec

Wow! Seems like forever since I last wrote on here. But A LOT has happened since my last post. I quit my job, got married and moved to a new city. If you didn’t already know, I am originally from Karachi. My new family, however, is based in Lahore. And let me tell you one thing… Karachi and Lahore are as different as chalk and cheese. While Karachi is mostly about making money, Lahore is about making food. People here, think from their tummies; and I don’t blame them… the food in Lahore is like the city itself. It is historical, it’s flavorsome, it’s full of color, culture and calories (lol!).

Foodies revving up to be fed at the scenic food street, interestingly laid out in the infamous Anarkali

Being a foodie, it wasn’t difficult for me to make the transition. As newly-weds, my husband and I were invited to lunches and dinners left, right and center; and while my clothes were complaining…. i definitely wasn’t. So far I have gotten to taste some really good food, ranging from Chinese to Barbecue, Continental and, of course, the local specialties… the curries. Of course my inability to digest mutton (mainly because of my dislike for the  meat) is somewhat limiting, but I have come to enjoy some amazing vegetarian dishes, some well-cooked beef-based cuisine, some insanely-good fried fish, and of course, the love of my life… Chicken.

One of the best things about moving to Lahore is being able to enjoy food in it’s entirety. Discovering the ingredients, absorbing the way it’s cooked and savoring all the flavors it has to offer. So stay tuned as I chronicle the adventures of my taste-buds, as I familiarize them to everything Lahore has to offer.

Gourmet Burger: A product of GBC

14 Nov

My boss suggested I order "the best burger in the country"

For a while now, my boss had been raving about this Classic Beef Burger that he had recently eaten from a local eatery. “This is the best burger in the country,” he declared. For a cynic like me, I found such a superlative being associated to something like a burger to be quite exaggerated. I tossed around some questions that would debunk his belief; but he seemed resolute.  He suggested I eat it myself and decide. Fair enough.

I don’t fancy red meat. In fact, if I can help it, I avoid it as aggressively as possible. Nevertheless, I decided that I take up on his advice and take a shot at what he claimed was the best burger in the country. Now I know Pakistan is still somewhat dabbling in the fast food arena; but my boss has traveled all over Pakistan, so I thought his opinion about the burger may hold some merit. I decided to make an exception on the occasion, and indulge in a beef burger. The place in question was Gourmet Burger (www.gbco.pk), and the burger was the Gourmet Classic Burger, that proudly boasted not one or two but three thumbs up (thereby declared as a top seller!).

When the burger finally arrived (after I coughed up Rs 350), I knew from the smell that the french fries served alongside the burger were good. Crunchy on the outside, and soft, melts-in-my-mouth on the inside. The fact that they didn’t survive the short walk from the pick-up area to the office testifies for how good they were (and few!).

Then comes the star of the show, the burger itself. I confess, there was a drum-roll in my head as I opened the lid of the soft foam delivery box. I was greeted by a modestly sized burger with a big, fat beef patty. Now, as a fan of Carl’s Jr, it didn’t take a flash of genius to conclude that it wasn’t as appetizing. I decided to give it the benefit of doubt, and bit into it. Hmmm….

A closer look at "the best burger in the country" (Sorry, I can't help myself :P)

It was good. Really good. The grilled beef patty was topped with a slice of cheese, mustard sauce, some onions and that’s it. Pretty simply, and basic. And having recently read a book about a man who changed the world because of his love for simple but amazing things, I liked the idea of not having to complicate the flavors by trying to do to much. So the patty was good; thick, well-cooked but juicy. But the best in Pakistan? May be not. The question is, is it the best I’ve ever had? Still a no. It’s probably one of the really good burgers I’ve ever had in Pakistan, but not the best. The best would’ve been one that would’ve blown every other burger out of the water. I don’t know what exactly it was that let me down. Perhaps it was the bun, that had been so conveniently void of any kind of attention. It wasn’t even heated. As a result, I had a juicy burger patty with a dry, almost crumbling bun. Or maybe it was just the way my brain processes anything with beef. I don’t think it was the latter; had it been so, I wouldn’t have liked the patty so much.

So sadly, I was disappointed. Because I still had a memory of a lot of good burgers I have had in Pakistan over the years. I guess there are a lot of burgers left for me to sample before I declare one the best. Hardees, maybe. Or Roasters, or maybe OPTP. I don’t know. That being said, I have found the place that sells the best fast food fries… and the quest for the best burger in Pakistan continues.

Caramel Pudding

5 Nov

I made this pudding a couple of days back... turned out good, but I think the previous batch was better

Since my childhood, I have had a soft spot for desserts… and caramel pudding is, without a doubt, a member of the Hall of Fame. Growing up, it was a weekly tradition in our house to prepare a caramel pudding with a dozen of eggs, so love for the dessert is now a part of our DNA. Those who know me would tell you, without a blink, that cheesecakes are my absolute favorite; but while a generous slice of a New York Cheesecake is the love of my life who takes me out on dream dates, a caramel pudding is the best friend who I can always go to when I’m stood up. In a creepy way, that makes sense (or may be just in my head).

Since I have been very fond of desserts, but never really good at making them, I stick to making only the ones that turn out good. Three of my dessert staples are  a nice, rich and divine chocolate mousse, the attention-seeking Bakhlava and a firm but smooth caramel pudding. I’ve always wanted to learn how to make a Molten Lava cake, but I think these three will do just fine for now. I had not made pudding in a while, and when I learnt that my future in-laws would be visiting, I decided to make it. My decision may have had something to do with the pudding being my adorable father-in-law’s favorite, but I knew that the other wouldn’t complain. (My main course contribution was for my sweet mother-in-law). In my mission to impress the party, I welcomed all suggestions from family members, who had all (surprisingly) dabbled in the art of pudding-making, with unpredictable results of course.

Many of you would already know that the caramel pudding uses very few, easily available ingredients.

  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Sugar
  • Vanilla essence
I know that a caramel pudding is one of those things which is defined by its understated beauty and simple flavors. So while I was open to recommendations, I didn’t want to experiment too much. My godmother, Beti, suggested I add some yellow food color, but I kept hearing turmeric (even while she was saying it, I knew she was saying “food color”, but for some reason my brain was constantly processing it as turmeric!). So I decided it was best to stay clear of both. True, the result was a somewhat pale pudding… but it looked so clean, I could stare at it all night.
The best advice, however, came from an unlikely source – my mother. I say that not because she can’t cook (she’s a great cook!) or because she doesn’t like sharing cooking tips (she loves to!), but because I had no recent memory of her making a caramel pudding. It was just one of those things that “someone” made and we all ate. Anyway, my mother suggested that I make the pudding mixture thick. She added that this would make it firm and rich. I loved it so much, I grabbed the tip and ran away with it. The next 30 minutes were spent with me carefully putting 1 cup milk (with cardamons soaking in them) for every one egg (total 12 eggs). Then adding 4-5 cups of sugar, 2 cups of cream and powdered milk. I know it sounds odd, but I just kept adding the powdered milk until i felt the mixture was thick enough. And it was pretty thick. Then I added my favorite dessert ingredient … the vanilla essence. Whoever thought of making vanilla essence, is a genius whose (clean) hands I wouldn’t mind pecking. I think it can make the most boring desserts appealing. That’s exactly why I’m always tempted to try out the French Toast.
Btw, I strained out the cardamons.
I had already put the steamer on the stove, so the water was just starting to come to a boil. At that point, I started working on the trickiest and most important part of the pudding… the caramel. I filled the base of a dry pudding/bundt cake mould with white sugar, and put it directly on the stove on low-flame. When it just started to melt, I gave it a twirl. Now the trick is to get the caramel to a nice, golden color of honey, rather than that of maple syrup. It’s ideal if you find a middle ground. It’s also important that you keep the caramel even-colored. If any part of your caramel turns too dark, you might as well start over… because the caramel will eventually turn out bitter. After my caramel got to the color I wanted, I removed it from heat and let it cool. Call me paranoid, but I don’t like the idea of the pudding mixture bubbling as I’m pouring it. I feel that this would make the top layer contain blobs of cooked, sweetened egg, defeating my purpose of a singular, rich and creamy pudding. To make sure that the caramel is cool enough, I try tilting the mould and judging its viscosity. I know it’s ready when it starts to move at a speed that is slow enough to keep you intrigued, but fast enough to keep you from growing frustrated. I know it’s a very subjective way of measuring, but that’s how I cook most of the time. So here’s the deal… your caramel should be cool (and thick) enough to guarantee you that when you start pouring the pudding mixture, it won’t seep to the bottom of the mould. Once all the mixture is poured, i put it on the steamer and let it cook until the tester comes out clean.
The picture above is from the batch I made recently, but judging from the feedback, I could tell that the one I made for my in-laws was better. This may have been because I gave that one my best shot. Or may be because everyone who gathered to eat that night wanted to make me feel like the luckiest and the best girl in the world. I think it’s the latter.

Tao Yuan-Chinese food with a Desi touch

19 Aug

Photo courtesy: Flagstaff Restaurants

Chinese food has gained popularity in Pakistan in a relatively short span of time. Does it have anything to do with the simplicity of the cuisine or Pakistan’s diplomatic ties with China? Well… I don’t know. But one thing is for sure, you have more Chinese eateries in Lahore than in any other city of Pakistan.

In the heart of Lahore on Main Boulevard Gulberg, right opposite Hafiz Centre (famous IT retail plaza) , is the Chinese-food lover’s sanctuary –  Tao Yuan. Tao Yuan has been serving top quality Chinese food to the food-loving people of Lahore, for well over a decade now.

I think that’s Tao Yuan (written as Tai Wah) on the map. Sorry if it’s wrong… nevertheless, this is the street where it’s at

If you’re a person who’s all about fancy shmancy ambiance, then Tao Yuan is, by no means, a place for you. It does not have fancy Chinese art on the walls or anything else which might get you to think of it as an ambassador of Chinese culture. Yes, apparently that’s how Chinese restaurants in Pakistan demonstrate their “China-ness”. Quite on the contrary, at Tao Yuan, you’ll see shabbily dressed waiters who aren’t particularly welcoming, and a small television set which never has anything interesting to watch on it.

You must be thinking, this place does not sound like somewhere I would like to have my next meal, right? Well, you couldn’t be more wrong! Tao Yuan sells some mouth-watering dishes that simply kindle your senses; the entire experience being enhanced purely by the food on your plate. Just forget about the waiters, the TV set or the lack of art around you. For the price that they sell the food at, and consistent quality that they have to offer, I visit the place regularly with my colleagues after work. Not being big fans of any appetizers, we like to order the main course straight away. Tao Yuan has a vast array of dishes to select from but fearing any unpleasant culinary experience, I stick to ordering the standard menu that I have perfected over the years –  thanks to my friends Omer Ali and Kashif Mustafa.

Yes, I ain't much of a photographer, and yes, the food looks straight-up horrible. You couldn't be more right about the former, and more wrong about the latter

“Chicken noodles” are a must-have at Tao Yuan and I can say this with full confidence. Their chef seems to have rubbed shoulders with an Iron Chef China or something, because his use of spices with vegetables is unlike any other garam-masala and oil-laden Chinese food found locally (case in point: Agha’s Chinese food); and of course, there’s LOTS of chicken on the plate.

For those who would like to venture into something more exciting, “Tao Yuan Special noodles” offers an addition of two different meats including beef and shrimps. “Tao Yuan special rice” is another dish that  a lot of the Chinese-food-loving people would be delighted to have. I have had the same dish under various names in other restaurants, however, this particular dish is head and shoulders above the rest. Countless flavors are fused together to bring this rice dish on a plate but the crunch of the almonds, coupled with the sweetness of the pineapple, is something that words just can’t describe. Another must-order for me is the “Chicken with almonds,” which is the only curry on our standard menu. Whilst many people like to order Chicken Manchurian, I seriously believe that having what is nothing more than tomato ketchup and chicken thrown in together, is just a waste of your money. In protest, I order this almond slash chicken dish. Surprisingly, this dish has the shortest table life and is considerably popular for its simple flavour. The last dish to land on our table is always the “Spring Chicken”. I have never understood where the management got this name from – it is neither “spring-y” nor does it have any use of spring onions in it. To me, it is some plainly-marinated chicken bathed in a batter and deep fried. It doesn’t have any complicated flavours that challenge the taste buds, and quite honestly… it doesn’t need to.

Tao Yuan Special Rice

The food at Tao Yuan might not be the stuff of Michelin-star and the food inspectors might raise concerns about the hygiene of the place as well, but one thing is certain, adding a personal touch to the food, Tao Yuan Chinese restaurant would certainly give any contemporary Chinese eatery a run for their money, based entirely on merit. So next time you’re short on cash and are looking for a nice dining experience, drop by “Tao Yuan” and their zombie-like waiters would unwillingly serve you food worth cherishing.

Feefo’s Arabic Paratha

4 Aug

Ramzan is definitely that month of the year when Karachiites remember their love for food. If it were possible, this would be the time when the streets of Burnes Road would drip with oil, and the month that doctors would unquestionably associate with heart problems among majority of the people. Yes, Ramzan is when everyone – rich or poor – indulges in deep fried, fat-laden and heart-attack inducing food. Though this essentially defeats the purpose of the month – living with modesty, developing compassion for the poor & exercising abstinence – food served this time of the year is unparalleled. Not in terms of quality, but in terms of spirit.

Every year, for 30 days, I see Karachiites less savage-like than they usually are. This is evident from the fact that when driving in the wild traffic at Sharah-e-Faisal, instead of shouting generational curses at the bikers who overtake them from the left, these relatively-sedated people just shut their eyes and pray for patience. Magical, isn’t it.

Coming back to the food, there is never dearth of fried food in Ramzan. From pakoras (mixture of onion, chillies, coriander and gram flour, cooked mostly in the monsoon season), to potato and brinjal fritters, dahi barey (fried puffs lentil dumplings in spiced yogurt) and jalebi (need to find out English translation)… iftar tables in Pakistan are laden with all the goodies. Arabic parathas, though not conventional occupants of an iftar table, are very tasty. The Arabic paratha is a deep fried flattened bread stuffed with egg & spiced shredded chicken. I know, it sounds incredibly fattening and it is, but it is also very delicious. The best thing about this fried item is its texture. It is crunchy on the outside, and soft, slightly glutinous on the inside. The flavoursome core is of course its strength. Many people substitute egg and chicken with minced beef, but I have my reservations with red meat served on the street. Do try to make this at home… it makes for a great tea-time snack, especially since you can choose to bake the bread instead of frying it.

UPDATE: Directions to Feefo (I THINK it’s behind Music City… this place always confuses me!)

Hyderabadi Khattay Aaloo

3 Aug

Khattay aaloo (sour potatoes) is a Hyderabadi snack which has found its way into Karachi street food. My family is a regular at ‘Hyderabad Colony’, a part of the city famous for its pickles, paapadh (poppadum), bagar-e-baigan (pickled brinjal) and khattay mirch (sour, stuffed jalapenõs). We usually buy the pickles and paapadh from there, but you should know that Hyderabadi food, in general, is extremely exotic. Their blend of spices is something that can put Mexican food to shame, which is another cuisine I love. Anyway, since my dad’s side of the family is from Bangalore, and my mother’s side is from Madras, we have a lot of traditional Indian food (like dosa, idli, saambaar, chaar, upma & wait for it… saltish semolina) served on our table. Also, since my family spent a lot of time in Bangladesh, we have a sweet spot for fish and rice as well. So you see, we have a lot of different kinds of food in our house, so understandably Hyderabadi food is no exception.

That aside, for one particular iftar, my uncle brought us some khattay aaloo, especially since it’s a favourite of mine and my mother’s. This particular one is not necessarily my favourite. He brought this from Cresent in Bahadurabad. I like the one available at the Dhoraji gola gandah junction. Traditionally, khattay aaloo is a dish simply made up of boiled potatoes, roughly cut into quarters. These potatoes are served with a spicy masala, which is what makes all the difference. The masala is made up of a lot of lemon juice, five spice powder, anardana (dried pomergrenate seeds), salt and some other stuff that I think is a secret passed on from one Hyderabadi to another some other things that I added when I made it here. Nevertheless, the sloppy way in which it’s served is that they put two to three boiled potatoes (whole) on a plate, cut it into rough quarters (or more depending on the size of the potatoes), and pour a good amount of the spicy paste onto it. The lemon-based spice, along with the bland potatoes go really well together. As soon as you put the potato in your mouth, there’s a burst of flavours and spices, and as soon as you bite into the boiled potato, you’re welcomed by it’s mild, almost tasteless flesh, which is a perfect contrast to the rich masala on the outside.

Word of caution, do not try this dish if you have a pitiable threshold for spicy food. As great as it sounds, it is dangerously aggressive for a delicate stomach. Also, never eat this on an empty stomach. It spells nothing but a sickening streak of acidity*blech*.

 

UPDATE: For those interested in knowing where Hyderabad Colony in Karachi is, here’s a grab… thanks to HRH Google

Pizza Chronicles-Rahat Bakery Islamabad

30 Jul

A city which is mostly known for its bureaucratic and political lifestyle, Islamabad is not very famous when it comes to food. For people like me who belong to Lahore, a culinary journey in the capital city of Pakistan can prove to be quite awkward, especially since food does not seem to be a priority for the residents here.

In recent times though, I was constantly told by my brother, who happened to work in Islamabad for a while, that Rahat Bakery in the Blue Area sells some exotic baked items, which are second to none when it comes to the taste. In particular, he added that the pizza sold by this bakery was finger-licking. When I did some additional research, I discovered that it was one of the foods in Islamabad that were spoken of very highly, and strongly recommended.

It wasn’t until a week back,  that I got the chance to visit Islamabad and taste a pizza that had alluded me for almost two years now. Located in what seemed to be one of the most posh areas of Islamabad, Rahat Bakery stood grand in the blue area and welcomed me in all grandeur. The place is the first “genuine bakery” I have ever visited in Pakistan, and I say that because most of the items sold there were being baked fresh – right before our eyes!

My friends and I ordered the Sausage pizza which was surprisingly not very overly priced. The 13-inch pizza cost us Rs. 795, which compared to a lot of its counterparts in Lahore was relatively economical. One can imagine the popularity of the pizzas served at Rahat by the fact that we had to wait close to 40 minutes to get our hands on our order. Since the bakery itself was overcrowded, we decided to wait for our order outside and spent our time on the stairs chit chatting. After a long wait, when I finally took a bite of the first slice, I knew that the wait was totally worth it. Nothing compares to a piece of freshly baked pizza. Although, the thin crust is not something I am normally fond of, the nice blend of spices and the generous spread of sausages and cheese were a thorough delight. Every bite had a different taste to it and the pleasure of eating it grew by the minute. In my vies, the best thing about it was the simplicity with which the baker had treated the pizza. Very often, we find that pizzas are treated complicatedly in an effort to infuse too many flavours. As a consequence, they end up ruining the entire pizza. This certainly was not the case with the Sausage pizza that i had at the Rahat Bakery. Maybe it’s just me; maybe the 40 minutes of waiting made me devour and relish every bite! However, I don’t think that was entirely the case. It’s been a very long time since I’ve had a pizza, that in its most simple form has been filling and delicious.

If you are a genuine pizza lover, if you really believe in tasting simple food and most importantly, if you are planning to visit Islamabad any time soon, do try Rahat Bakery’s pizza and I am sure you won’t be disappointed.

 

UPDATE: Directions to Rahat Bakery, Islamabad (A on the map)