January 23, 2020
When Adil Moosajee decided to open The East End, a high-end Pakistani restaurant in Karachi, his friends tried to talk him out of it, citing the classic refrain, “who will pay for Pakistani food?” But when he served a sample five-course menu to potential investors, representing Karachi’s diverse ethnic heritage, from the owner’s Bohra roots to the city's coastal Kiamari culture, the concept was a hit. Following the restaurant’s launch in Karachi’s Clifton neighborhood, you couldn’t get a table for six months. “We were that booked,” Moosajee told me. “We proved everybody wrong.”
At The East End today, guests can find dishes that range from Afghan Rosh with pulao, to Bohra mutton roast with dal chawal and paleeda soup, to traditional Kiamari black peppercorn crabs and fishermen-style prawn biryani.
The East End’s story, unfortunately, is rare. The number of creative, high-end Pakistani restaurants is small. One would think a country with a cuisine that draws upon the rich culinary traditions of Central Asia, the Middle East, and South Asia and with one of the largest diasporas in the world — with at least 3.4 million Pakistanis living outside their homeland — would be a global culinary powerhouse. But Pakistani cuisine has struggled to find its culinary voice, often overshadowed by its larger neighbor, India, and hampered by an internal lack of understanding and appreciation of its cuisine.
Yet, things may be changing. Growing awareness of the nuances of South Asian food, heightened food consciousness globally, and the boom in Pakistan’s culinary industry may finally be paving the way for a Pakistani food renaissance.
Despite Pakistan and India’s shared roots, after Partition, Pakistan was left with a fervent desire to establish its own independent identity from India. The journey has been clumsy, with the fault line most visible when it comes to the question: “how is Pakistani food different from Indian food?” Answers hinge on religion, erasing minorities on both sides, and coloring over ethnic and regional differences, the drivers of subcontinental cuisine.
Pakistani food is an amalgamation of the cuisine of dozens of communities. Some overlap with India, others do not. It’s not as simple as defining Pakistani food by what is not Indian. Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, has an intimate shared past with Eastern Punjab in India, and Pakistan’s influential Mohajir community migrated from Indian states, such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Not surprisingly, the dishes that have become the outward symbols of Pakistani cuisine — such as nihari, the thick, sharp beef stew enjoyed for breakfast, or chole, chickpeas simmered in a spicy, tangy sauce — have roots in cities like Delhi and Amritsar.