In Karachi, Street Food Tells a Story of Division and Unity

How politics, nationhood and immigration continue to shape the aromas and pallet of street food in a Pakistani city

In Karachi, Street Food Tells a Story of Division and Unity
Burns Road Food Street at night / Getty Images

Walk down Karachi’s famous Burns Road and there’s an undeniable mix of smoke, richly cooked meat and desi mithai (local sweetmeats) filling the air. It’s also known for the crowds that fill the street, waiting to be served by one of its many local street food establishments, many of which have been around for over 50 years. Each prides itself on being the best in the business and boasts long histories — often older than the country they are now in.

The debate around where to find the best food in Pakistan is an old one, and it’s one Karachiites will do everything in their power to win. Amid political strife, ethnic tensions and decades’ worth of problems, food is what ties the city together. In “Karachi Vice,” author Samira Shackle follows four Karachiites, each of whom confront the city’s political tensions and security issues in their daily lives. While Karachi is not quite a “melting pot,” Shackle describes how multiple identities coexist, though not always cohesively.

“Karachi is a city of migrants and the economic heart of the country. In many ways all these different communities are being pushed up against each other as the population of the city continues to grow faster than the infrastructure can accommodate,” Shackle says. With few recreational activities available and access to public spaces often restricted due to class, gender or the city’s security situation, food is the main, if not only, way for people to come together easily. More important, it has also become a way to preserve identities and delineate different migrant communities that have settled in Karachi throughout its history. It’s why beyond the affluent bubbles of DHA, Clifton and a few other areas in the city, much of Karachi still looks and sounds similar to what would have been the case decades ago, and in areas like Burns Road, even the food has changed little through the generations.

Zubair Ahmed, owner of the Malik Hotel — known for its infamous nihari (a spicy, thick meat curry) on the famous food street — takes great pride in the fact that the family-run food venture draws its lineage from the royal kitchens of Mughal emperor Shahjahan Malik. “Our recipes and our family’s link to serving food is older than Pakistan, and before partition, we were known for our food in Delhi,” Ahmed says. Where pre-partition Delhi saw nihari as a Mughal dish rarely found outside Muslim quarters or royal kitchens, it is now a dish that is quintessentially Karachi — at least according to consumers. But those who create it cling to their ancestral roots, and their stories of migration are as much a part of their restaurant experience as the taste of their food. A lot of that historical linkage comes from the fact that being a migrant in Karachi, part of a community known as Muhajir that can describe half of the city’s residents, has become a political identity.

Political anthropologist Arsalan Khan attributes the politicization of identities to the influx of Urdu-speaking, north Indian Muslims into Karachi following the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. The establishment of Karachi as Pakistan’s capital threatened Sindhi dominance over the port city, fanning ethnic tensions.

Tensions between Muhajirs and Sindhis reached new heights after Bhutto introduced a quota system in the civil service in the 1970s, leading to a loss of government jobs for Muhajirs. In 1978, what is now the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) began as a student organization at Karachi University under Altaf Hussain. As the once-refugee community continued to fight for their dominance over Karachi, they began to leave their mark in various ways and food became a significant marker in defining how relations were developing. Shackle tells New Lines that when the famous food carts that went around the neighborhoods of Lyari and Orangi Town — both dominantly Muhajir areas — fell silent, it was a sign that ethnic tensions were bad. “There was, and still is, this dominance of local politics within these areas. For example, if you lived in a Muhajir area like Orangi Town and you had an issue, you would go to a local MQM office rather than approach the bureaucrat in charge of that area,” she adds.

Pop culture writer Ahmer Naqvi, known popularly online as Karachikhatmal, points out that understanding why northern Indian food has become such a large part of Karachi’s food scene comes from looking at why other ethnic foods have not.

“Why are there no Sindhi restaurants to the same extent in Karachi? Why have the Irani restaurants that populated the Saddar area died out? How come there aren’t any seafood restaurants despite Karachi being a coastal city?” he asks. “It has a lot to do with how certain populations have politically asserted themselves as well.”

Political tensions left Sindhis and Muhajirs battling it out for dominance in the city, sometimes literally, as the early 2000s saw an influx of Pashtun refugees from northern Pakistan and Afghanistan escaping the war on terror, only to create ethnic divides where they settled. While the Muhajir communities had been middle-class, urban refugees, Pashtuns were rural, tribal communities and their approach to work was very different.

“There were caste dimensions to this as well. Urban Urdu-speaking migrants did not want to do jobs they considered below them, whether that be chai wala [tea seller], doodh wala [milk seller] or mochi [cobbler],” Khan says, comparing their mindset of wanting to maintain their economic comfort off the resilience and enterprising nature of Pashtun refugees.

Pashtuns’ desire to serve their communities, coupled with a lack of conventional jobs in an overpopulated city where people preferred to employ fellow community members led to the rise of the famous Pashtun chai sellers. What has often been little more than street stalls serving chai and occasionally parathas (a kind of fried flat bread often served with chai or breakfast items) in a few places have become a Karachi staple, and one that, surprisingly, has surpassed the forced ghettoization of the city.

Journalist Talat Aslam, who has an avid interest in Karachi’s culinary culture, points out that, unlike most other migrant communities, Pashtun migrants have found a way into the food scene. Gul Ahmed, a young boy who works at his father’s chai dhaba (street stalls serving tea and snacks) in Karachi’s DHA (Defence Housing Authority) neighborhood, said that when his father first migrated from the north of the country, he initially ran his own street cart after he could not find employment. A sense of independence comes through Ahmed’s retelling of how the now popular chai dhaba came to be. “I don’t want to be working for anyone else. There’s not a lot of jobs here for Pashtuns, and that’s why I want to study further and start my own business,” he says. Until he does that, Ahmed is very proud of working at the shop his father has built because demand is high and it establishes them as a key part of Karachi’s ecosystem.

Still, it hasn’t been easy to establish their chai dhaba, and even in the best of times, there has been an uneasy peace among ethnic groups, prone to flaring up from time to time. In April 1985, Muhajir-Pashtun tensions came to a head when a speeding bus struck and killed 20-year-old Bushra Zaidi, who was on her way to Sir Syed Girls College in Karachi’s Nazimabad area. What was assumed to be just another tragedy in a city full of them turned into something different, as Rafia Zakaria explores the effect of the accident in her book “The Upstairs Wife.” Zaidi’s family were migrants to Karachi, and when it was found out that the bus driver was Pashtun, newly politicized Muhajir groups burned scores of Pashtun-driven buses. The fatality triggered a bloody war between the two groups that started the ghettoization of Karachi as we know it.

Aslam notes that when tensions were high, the famous Pashtun chai sellers would slowly disappear from the Muhajir-dominant areas in Karachi like Orangi, Gulshan-e-Iqbal and other parts of the city. That disappearance reinforced other communities as Pashtun ones, once again categorized by the rich Afghan and Pashtun restaurants they have become famous for.

Any Karachiite worth their salt will know what Shinwari is: restaurants serving food native to a particular tribe in north Pakistan. One of the most famous of the Shinwari restaurants is ‌near the Super Highway, but others have sprung up in Pashtun-dominated areas in the city. Where Afghan Pashtuns have settled, food plays an important role in preserving their identity. The distinct taste of Kabuli pulao, Shinwari karahais and kebabs are unlike many of their counterparts that have existed in and around Karachi. Preserving those flavors becomes a matter of staying true to their roots because it is all they have, as they risk losing their home and having to leave everything behind.

Shackle’s “Karachi Vice” follows ambulance driver Safdar, a Pashtun, and describes how sharing food was a key part of the day when work was light. “When there were fewer emergency calls, Safdar and the other drivers would go to a small food market near the Edhi Foundation Office and Safdar would make local Pashtun dishes for his friends,” she said.

Shackle noticed that the barriers to entry into the food scene are low. Karachi’s residents will be the first to tell you with great pride that the city boasts excellent food across all price points, which many appreciate today with energy prices edging higher.

Still, while much has survived, much else has fallen victim to Karachi’s dangers. Bilal Hassan, a doctor who blogs about Pakistani travel and culture, notes that the Parsi restaurants that populated Saddar are long gone. “I once asked my followers what food they wanted me to cover more, and they asked for Parsi food,” Hassan said. “But when I tried to look for the restaurants that were so popular in my parents’ time, I realized most of them had shut down. The one bakery that still remained was also no longer run by the Parsi woman who had previously run it for years.”

Parsis, or Zoroastrians from South Asia, had long been a part of Karachi’s fabric, but religious politics pushed the small community to emigrate, and now only a handful of families remain. Most religious minorities in Pakistan feel compelled to keep their practices a secret or as low key as possible. Many Parsis who emigrated came from an educated, middle- or upper-middle-class background, but because of the changing security situation for religious minorities since the 1980s, many left in search of better opportunities.

Karachi, therefore, is perhaps as much shaped by what it has gained as what it has lost. Despite there being relative peace in the past few years, political control of MQM in the city stands in juxtaposition to the political hold that the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has over the rest of Sindh.

The proud owner of the Malik Hotel was quick to mention how long the family-run business had been around despite competition with the newer establishments nearby that have been opening their doors over the years. And much like Malik Hotel’s nihari or pathan chai has maintained a distinct flavor over generations, so too has Karachi. Years of violence are followed by years of peace. Tempers rise and fall. Yet the underlying divisions that cut across the city have long remained the same. Even in its togetherness, Karachi stands divided in its identity.

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