My extended family often quizzes me as to why I left the city of my birth and chose to settle in the environs of the Federal Capital. I have often posed the same question to myself and have realized that barring one aspect, Islamabad is the perfect place to lead a retired existence. This one missing plus, which puts me in the ‘foody’ category, is the lack of good street cuisine.
‘Street Food’ in the context of this week’s piece could be described as cost effective sustenance sold from mobile outlets i.e. hand pushed carts or shoulder carried stands. The king amongst this type of cuisine was ‘Ladoo Peethi’. These were deep fried ball shaped fritters made from chick pea flour served with spicy chutney and julienned white radish. Only a handful of these ‘ladoo’ makers are left in Lahore, one of who serves his clientele in an Ichraa (a locality on Ferozepur Road) back street. None of my visits to the ‘City of Gardens’ is complete without a trip to this special spot.
The original ‘Aloo Cholay’ that were sold at every street corner and school gate have now been replaced by a mutated version that is nowhere near the taste and bite of the old recipe. I remember the middle aged man who sold, what was a complete mini meal, outside our school on Hall Road. One spicy plate costing one ‘anna’ (or one sixteenth of a rupee) consisted of diced boiled potatoes and chick peas, white and red radish, onions and yogurt – all flavored with special spices. In winters our ‘Aloo Cholay Wala’ changed his menu into a variety of ‘choorans’. Our most favorite out of these was a black powder, which emitted a blue flame, when touched by a metal rod dipped in some chemical. It was perhaps this show of ‘magic’ that made us go for the stuff.
‘Gol Gappay’ known as ‘Pani Puri’ in Karachi was (and remains) another very popular delicacy in and around Lahore. There was a time when this snack consisted of only two items – a deep fried globular mini ‘puri’ and a water based liquid sauce made from dried ginger, black salt and other spices. The flour globule was first dipped in the sauce and then eaten. A short time later, a third ingredient was added to the recipe in the form of boiled chickpeas. The current version of ‘gol gappay’ which includes boiled potatoes, red beans and mint or coriander leaves, has completely destroyed the charm and balance of the original thing. Nonetheless, all is not lost for there is still one place that sells something that is closest to the old version. This cart is located at the entrance to Lawrence Gardens or Bagh e Jinnah on Lawrence Road.
The ‘iron cladding’ of my stomach is perhaps due to my passion for ‘Chikar Cholay’ bought from the old ‘chaacha’s’ cart at the Ganga Ram Hospital Intersection. I have eaten many modern versions of this typically Lahori dish, but have not found it to be anything like the original version. The ‘chaacha’ normally began business around midday and was sold out within the hour. It was therefore necessary to be on the spot early, so as to be able to exploit the short window of opportunity.
Another unforgettable street delicacy was the spicy mincemeat sold at the corner of Regal Chowk. The owner of this man-packed eating outlet sometimes set up his station close to Maula Buksh Pan Shop on Lawrence Road in front of the old ‘tonga’ stand. A recent visit to Lahore found the whole area transformed with no trace of my ‘qeemay wala’ and his deliciously inviting fare.
A signature Lahori summer dessert was a mouthwatering frozen milky concoction flavored with cardamoms and sold from a red cloth covered terracotta pitcher on the rear of a bicycle. The stuff was ladled out with a flat nosed knife and served to customers on banana leaves. I believe this sweet treat has now gone extinct.
It is indeed a pity that some of these delicacies have been overtaken by time and are now seen no more on the streets of Lahore. The aim of this week’s piece is to resurrect them (at least in our memory) in the hope that someone in the right place and with the right resources will make an effort to preserve and even revive Lahore’s traditional street culinary culture.