My professional career, spanning more than three decades, involved frequent travelling by road. Iqbal, who drove me here and there was a gifted individual with an uncanny road sense. He also had the ability to speedily understand human psychology, especially mine and it was often that my thoughts were implemented by him even before I had voiced them. This unique man in now employed with a leading technology company on a salary that I can ill afford, but makes it a point to stay in touch with me and my family.

It was Iqbal, who introduced me to Pakistan’s roadside cuisine and driver hotels and together we developed an unerring eye for the best of the lot. Now a driver hotel is nothing like a modern highway eatery, a rash of which has broken out along our major asphalt strips. A driver hotel is a cheap and humble establishment consisting of a verandah like structure (often thatch roofed) with a cooking area at one end. About half a dozen string cots and roughly made tables between them take up the remaining space and a water tap or a hand pump provides washing facility. It is however, not the décor, but the food that makes weary travelers return again and again to the spot, forsaking brand new swanky eating places in the neighborhood.

The menu at these addictive and mouthwatering eating spots usually consists of three or four main dishes – stir fried ‘maash’ lentils or chickpeas, mixed vegetables that change with the season and a meat curry. What makes the food addictive are the seasoning and spices coupled with a constant stream of crisp hot ‘rotis’ served straight from the ‘tandoor’. An additional attraction here is that if one keeps his ears open, one can get updated on the latest news, scandals, cricket results and travel information from conversations between truck drivers that frequent the place. I along with Iqbal always looked out for an establishment crowded with trucks, as I was always sure to find its food and service ‘out of this world’.

Back in the sixties, one such spot was located on GT Road near Kharian serving food cooked in pure ‘desi ghee’. The place was small and no different in appearance from others of its kind. What set it apart was the flavor of the ‘ghee’ and the hand ground spices. Today ‘Mian Jee da Hotel’ has expanded into a chain and morphed into a large, air-conditioned, modern restaurant. It has lost its rustic ambiance and its most outspoken critics – the truck drivers, who have shifted their patronage elsewhere, due perhaps, to unaffordable prices. Needless to say that I too have stopped visiting the place.

Just a few kilometers short of Havelian, while coming from Rawalpindi, one sees a ramshackle structure on the right of the road with the sign ‘Punjab Hazara Hotel’. I stopped at this unassuming place much against my family’s desire, after seeing a dozen trucks parked there. Led into a curtained enclosure at the rear, we ordered a vegetable bhujia and chickpea curry. Minutes later I saw the young man, who had taken our order, wade into a vegetable field behind the hotel and return carrying freshly plucked ‘okra’ or ‘bhindi’. My family’s continuous criticism suddenly subsided as the food was served with piping hot ‘rotis’. I wasn’t at all surprised, when the cry went up for a refill of the freshly plucked okra dish. We left the spot after awarding it a rating of 10 out of 10 and have continued to patronize the place to date.

Have you ever tried eating a bunch of freshly fried ‘pakoras’ rolled up in a ‘naan’ – if not, I urge you to do so. In times gone by, the two best ‘pakora’ outlets were located in Sarai Alamgir on the GT Road and Sarai Sualeh (on the Karakoram Highway between Haripur and Havelian). Alas the Sarai Alamgir spot has been swallowed up by mushrooming haphazard commercialization, but ‘Turki’ Pakora in Sarai Sualeh is alive and well. The establishment is flanked by two fake ‘Turkis’, but the genuine one is characterized by Pakistani and Turkish flags painted on its signboard and framed newspaper cuttings on the wall. The ‘pakoras’ here are served in terracotta ‘koondas’ along with a side of fried green chilies and tomatoes. What makes this popular and common subcontinental snack different is the sauce. The recipe for this wonderfully spicy and mouthwatering ‘chutney’ is a closely guarded secret and no amount of incentive to date, has seduced the owner to divulge it. I am so hung up on this meal that the only request I make to friends travelling that way, is to get me a full helping of ‘Turki Pakoras’.

So next time dear readers, if you are travelling on the Karakoram Highway towards Abbottabad, do stop at these spots and get hooked. You may however like to first check and confirm that you are driving that way in the ‘okra’ season.

 The writer is a historian.