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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.

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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.

Rotiboy Coffee Bun

23 Aug

The Rotiboy Coffee Bun (Photo courtesy: Freddie)

Yes, it’s official. I’m still reeling from the fact that I am no longer in Malaysia *sigh*. Nevertheless, I think it’s only fair to share with the world, the fond memories I have of the people, food and culture of Malaysia.

There are four food smells that always work up your appetite, when you’re in Malaysia.

1. Famous Amos Cookies
2. J Co. Donuts
3. Saint Cinnamon Classic Chocolate Cinnabons
4. Rotiboy’s “downright-amazing-and-freshly-baked” Coffee Buns.

If you travelled to Malaysia and didn’t try EACH of these… you need a solid refund!

Nevertheless, today I’m going to talk about Rotiboy’s Coffee Buns. Available at all the Rotiboy outlets perforating Kaula Lumpur, my favourite outlet was the one at the magnificent Petronas Towers Shopping Mall… Suria KLCC. Petronas Towers… you might’ve heard of them. If not…here they are…on the map.

I still remember, as soon as you enter KLCC, you’re welcomed by the heavenly smell of coffee. For someone who gets migranes because of coffee, it’s bad news. But this smell is different. It’s the smell of fresh coffee, sugar, cream and butter. And of course, my favourite smell in the world… freshly baked bread. If I were given the chance, I’d love to set up my very own business of baked goodies…I’m guessing that’s what heaven would smell like. Anyway, I remember, on my way back from work, I’d queue up for 30 minutes, to grab two coffee buns, which used to be for approximately RM2.0 each, which is like less than a dollar. I’d watch the “rotiboys and rotigirls” work behind counters, envying them for being able to put smiles on so many faces.

The bun itself is quite big, albeit light and fluffy. Ond bite into the deep brown bun, and you’d break through the fragile yet crisp surface. The bun, as dark as it is on the outside, is almost a light tone of nude on the inside. It’s so fluffy that you can almost press the entire bun within the palm of you hand. But if you do so, how else would you enjoy it’s light, yet absolutely divine texture. The wafer-thin crust, the soft interior that smells like butter yet tastes like coffee *sigh*!

Rotiboy Coffee Bun is one of the best baked items found in Malaysia. The Buttermilk Boy is another favourite. Those who’ve tried it will nod in agreement…and those who haven’t…well…tsk tsk.

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.

Ayam Kicap (Soya Sauce Chicken)

17 Aug

Photo courtesy: Fun-Travel-Malaysia.com

Last year, my beautiful friend Freddie and I went on a trip to Malaysia for two weeks. There’s one word to describe that vacation… ‘Magical’. Magical because it marked many firsts of our lives. It was the…

  • First time Freddie and I had been together for so long since our college days (we used to be roomies).
  • First heavy expense since we both started earning.
  • First time I was going on a self-financed trip with a friend.
  • First time I used a credit card online.
  • First time I watched a movie in 3D.
  • First time I went on a night jungle-walk.
  • First time I saw a field mouse in my hotel bedroom.
  • First time I flew Air Asia.
  • First time I rode a jet ski.
  • First time I went so deep into the sea.
  • First time I went inside a bat cave.
  • First time I walked a canopy bridge.

So you see, it was a special time for me. This was the first time I was doing everything on my own expenses…it was an adrenaline rush. Nevertheless, I should clarify that it wasn’t my first time in Malaysia. It wasn’t even my second, or third, or fourth. Long story short… I had been to Malaysia several times before, but this time I experienced a lot of new things.

I still remember, it was our first day in Taman Negara, which is Malay for National Forest, and we had just been on a bus for almost 5 hours and on a boat for another one.

This is where we were:

We were exhausted and absolutely famished. Finally we reached our home for the next two nights. It was a beautiful resort, with a bunch of wooden huts in the wilderness. For us city girls, this was as exciting as it could get. Here we were, in the middle of nowhere, with absolute strangers, in what was one of the thickest and oldest rain forests in the world. Now that I think of it, it’s scary; but back then, it was awesome.

Our cabin at Taman Negara

Anyway, after a somewhat dramatic entrance into our motel room (involving fat lizards, my reluctance to touch anything in the room or enter the shower, and freddie pulling our beds AWAY from the walls),  freddie & I cleaned up. We were supposed to be at the Mama Chop Floating Restaurant after dinner. This was our group’s assembling point. Dinner was supposed to be at the resort.

Photo Courtesy: Muffledsolitude.com

So there we were, all set to be fed to the fill, when’ we were greeted by a not-so-appetizing-looking Chicken dish. For a chicken lover like me, that’s saying something, but considering how hungry I was, I could have eaten my friend if I had to. Anyway, the dish was Ayam Kicap… and believe you me, it was amazing. Never before have I tasted something that looked so unappealing yet tasted soooo good.

Photo courtesy: Linapg.blogspot.com

Ayam Kicap (pronounced “Kichaap”) or Soya Sauce Chicken is a purely chicken and onion dish, which, from the looks of it, kinda reminded me of the Bengali dish, Murgh Dopiaza (that means Chicken with Onions). However, the taste is quite different. The dish, like most Malaysian food, is kind of sweet; most prominent flavours being of the rustic, earthy brown sugar, some thick sweet soya sauce, garlic and a bite of vinegar. Onions, in this dish, unlike in Pakistani cuisine, are not halved, finely sliced and fried until golden brown. They are cut into thick onion rings that can withstand the entire cooking process. The chicken, at the end, tastes almost as though it has been caramelised… which is NEVER a bad thing. The dish was accompanied by the staple Malaysian side dishes… nasi goreng (fried rice) and sauteéd vegetables. We thoroughly enjoyed everything on the table, my favourite part being when I would mix some vegetable stock from the sauteéd veggies, with the rice and chicken…and gorge on a mouthful. Though we were in the wild, everything was serene at that moment.

So, while we had much to complain about (in the context of our room), when our group assembled at Mama Chop’s, we had nothing but good things to say about the meal that made up for everything else.

Note to self, must plan a girls-only trip again!

UPDATE: Just remembered, I cooked Ayam Kicap twice after returning to Pakistan. Needless to say, it was great. Will upload recipe and original camera shots soon.

Photo courtesy for un-captioned images: Freddie Kruger

Agha’s Chicken Tikka

24 Jul

As promised earlier, I decided to write about BBQ at the infamous Agha’s. Chicken Tikka, often referred to as Chicken Tandoori, is a quarter part of chicken, marinated in a spicy marination and cooked over hot charcoal. As one of the most popular BBQ items available at all local food joints in Pakistan, it is much liked by many…locals and foreigners alike.

Whenever I order Chicken Tikka from Agha’s, I request for extra chillies, a mint-coriander chutney (raita) & lemon wedges. You have no idea how amazingly delectable a hot juicy tandoori breast piece tastes after you’ve generously massaged it fresh lemon. Once the piece is glistening with the lemony juices, it’s ideal that you rip out a piece, dip it into the coriander chutney and devour the rustic morsel you just composed. As a fan of hot food, I bite onto a green chilli, along with the chicken. Though often a times I find myself tearing up due to the level of spice, I have barely ever done otherwise. It’s almost routine for me to order this combo, and the gentleman on the other end of the line knows it by heart by now. ..
One chicken tikka breast piece, with lemon, green chillies & raita. Never a bad idea!

Agha’s Chicken Chili Dry and Egg Fried Rice

23 Jul

I am always hungry. That’s a fact that pretty much everyone I know has learnt to live with. I am, unfortunately, one of those who  (pardon the cliche but) live to eat.  So there I was at work, hungry as always, trying to resist giving into my carnal cravings. Of course, as obvious from the picture above, I failed. And I failed bad. Because anyone who knows a thing or two about dieting ( I have been on a perpetual diet since I was 10 years old), would tell you that rice is a big no-no!

Anyway, with all concerns about any diet or an impending wedding out of the window, I ordered Chinese food from a nearby lunch place – Agha’s.  This little fast food corner, at the heart of Karachi (junction between I.I. Chundigarh Roah and Ziauddin Ahmed Road), is a favourite at my workplace… not because their food tastes fantastic or anything but because they are just so damn fast at delivering the food, that it seems like the only reliable place to turn to in case of emergency. Which reminds me, Agha’s is also our permanent Plan B place for lunch. Whenever we find it difficult to agree on one place for lunch, we always decide on Agha’s… even though a lot of us have fallen prey to its not-so-impressive hygiene.

Moving on, I must tell you that, in all honesty, I am not a big fan of Chinese food. Its not so much that I don’t like it… it’s just that my taste buds are more attuned to spicy food. Also, I like intense flavours. I know some Chinese dishes are supposed to be really intense, but I think it’s a thing with us Pakistanis… we don’t feel done with food until we feel full. Any Chinese food always makes me feel light. I know it sounds crazy, because technically, it’s healthier to feel light after a meal. But to me personally, it’s more important to feel fed *shameless*.  I have never tasted real Chinese food, but I am pretty sure that it would be more unapproachable for me than the desi version of Chinese food that is so freely (and as many renown food critics would say, sacrilegiously) sold in Pakistan. In spite of my reservations for Chinese food being so explicitly etched in my mind, I still ordered the Chicken Chili Dry with Egg Fried Rice, which looked like the picture  above. The fluorescent green stuff did not come with the food; those are my chopsticks… which, by the way, are kiddy-size. Either that or my hands are really big.

Upon delivery, the  Chicken Chili Dry with Egg Fried Rice comes in a paper box, containing two plastic bags – one of the chicken, and the other for the rice. Most interestingly, also included in the package is coleslaw, ketchup and mint chutney. Now I don’t claim to be any expert on food, but I don’t think any of those four things (coleslaw, Chinese food, mint chutney or ketchup) go together. That’s just really wrong. No wonder we fall sick so frequently after eating from Agha’s. Anyway, I decided to completely stay away from all the three…um…things that were completely uncoordinated with the main dish.

Those who’ve had Chinese food in Pakistan would agree that it is loaded with oil and garam masala (which is a spice made up on five spices: cardamon, cinnamon, clove, star anise and some other things that I will have to confirm with my mother. I think it also contains something called barhi eliachi, which directly translates to big cardamon, but I’m not so sure of its English name). But you see, Agha’s is not your typical Pakistani fast-food eatery, where you find very spicy, oily and unhygienic food. It is all that and more. Apparently, it claims to specialise in Iranian, Pakistani and junk food as well. I could, upon request, indulge in the latter two. Iranian food from Agha’s is something I have officially sworn off after falling really sick.

Chicken Chili Dry with Egg Fried Rice at Agha’s is oily, tasteless (unless salt-pockets qualify as taste-makers) and very heavy. The rice, served separately had the right texture. So, not surprisingly, it was made of left-over rice. This, many chefs say, is a good thing, since leftover rice is slightly hardened on the surface and can withstand the heat of a wok. The chicken was unfortunately, not as I expected it to be. Considering it was my first time ordering this particular place, I am entitled to have expectations, am I not? Anyway, I was expecting the chicken to be cut in strips, cooked with some soya sauce, salt and pepper till crisp, and then lightly sauteed with chili strips. What I got was chicken cubes cooked with lots of onion, spring onion, garlic and chili. Still, compared to yesterday’s lunch, I would say today was an improvement… which is quite insulting for Pizza Hut. Sad, but true. I am making a note to myself to avoid ordering Chinese food from Agha’s unless it’s an absolute emergency. I think their BBQ and Pakistani food is their forte. Perhaps next time, I’ll order my favourite item from their menu – Chicken Boti (BBQ Chicken cubes). Hmm… let’s see.

You will wonder, after reading most of my blogs, why I continue to eat from places that make me sick. The answer to that is simple… what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.

UPDATE: Directions to Agha’s (A on the map)