O moving moon!
Come to turn Lahore’s evening into morning.
– Akhtar Shirani, poet of early 20th century
Actually, before Lahore awakes, hundreds of chefs get their fares ready in the wee hours to prepare for the highly addictive breakfast of halwa poori – a sweet paste made of flour, ghee, and sugar, served with flaky deep-fried dough and spoonfuls of chanay/curry chickpeas – all gulped down with generous servings of ultra-sweet chai or freshly churned lassi. Or, if you are feeling slightly under the weather and want something to boost your system, go for payee – a tasty curry goat hoof stew – or an invigorating morning offal soup!
Lahore, or Loh-awar (meaning fort in Sanskrit) was ruled by a succession of Hindu kings, Mughal emperors, Sikhs rulers, and the British Empire. The capital of Punjab in Eastern Pakistan, Lahore is famous for its culinary, literary, and music traditions. It has been the subject of poetry and travel writers for centuries. John Milton, the 17th century English poet describes Lahore as one of the seven cities Adam saw from the hill of paradise. Urdu poets such as Akhtar Shirani, Allama Iqbal, and Nasir Kazmi all sing praises for the eternal beauty and enchantment of Lahore’s historic splendor.
It is not always easy to get to Pakistan. Following bombings in the north and in the south, the Canadian government put the country under red alert in April 2019, recommending no non-essential travel. The Indian airspace was closed for security reason two months prior and my Thai Airways flight from Bangkok to Lahore is cancelled. A last minute booking with Malindo Air meets the same fate. I check all other possible options – from Hong Kong to Yangon – with two or three-plus connections, long transits, and triple costs. Finally, I fly in with Etihad, via Abu Dhabi, munching dates and baklava for sixteen hours in the lounge!
It’s Ramadan, followed by festive Eid! Most things are closed, and it’s just 50C (“normal”) heat. Welcome to Lahore!
For a month, I roam around the nooks and crannies of Old Lahore, sitting down to breakfast with the locals, and meander through the endless markets, trying to learn the different kinds of spices. I venture into the music stores in the Langgay Bazaar, admiring the artisanal tradition, and visit exquisite heritage building here and there, getting lost in the maze of alleyways. Upon hearing the afternoon call to prayer, I head in the direction of a neighbourhood mosque. Before long, I find myself at a different gate in the opposite end and re-enter the old city now basking in late afternoon light…
It’s impossible not to fall in love with this gem of a city, with UNESCO world heritage sites (Mughal fort and Shalimar Garden), stunning mosques, magnificent havelis (Mughal mansions) and hamman, traditional neighbourhoods, a labyrinth of streets and passages, bazaars of all kinds, and pulsing energy. Above all, a way of life that amazingly seems little perturbed by 21st century onslaught of globalization…
Here, people still have their morning rendezvous at Shahid’s or Mohammed’s, chit-chat about the latest political scandals or poke fun at politicians wearing a cat filter in a live press conference, before picking up some fresh green peppers and mangoes on their way home, instead of liking a picture of peach in season on a tablet. They have time, they take time, even for total strangers. A greeting, a smile, an exchange and warm welcome…
I wonder how long this old city life would last, stubbornly, against the merciless time machine. You can already uber your chai or careem a piping hot plate of halwa poori and chanay in the comfort of your air-conditioned room, even though certain things like Pakistan Post seem to have withstood time well!
Thankfully, the culinary tradition is still alive and well. The Lahorites have a serious love affair with their food! I have never seen bigger vats and chefs of more substantive size before! Have you tried the new sajji (traditional oven-baked chicken from Balochistan province) restaurant in Johar Town? This joint in Valencia has the best samosas in the world!
If breakfast in Bhatti Gate in old Lahore is a ritual, dinner is an institution. It begins with a seemingly limitless selection of snacks – samosas, pakoras, bhai puri, sev puri, gol gappa (different versions of chickpeas in puffs soaked in yoghurt and tamarind juice) – followed by supposedly appetite-opening paan (betel leaf with areca nut) chewing, then a tikka piece (chicken skewers) appetizer, before tackling a serious tawa (cast iron pan) of lamb or chicken, karahi (meat in tomato stew), aloo ghost (potato with meat) or tak-a-tak (offal, again!), always garnished with a mountain of nan or rice. Or, on slightly less hungry days, you can always opt for just a (very full) plate of mouth-watering beef/lamb biryani, though Lahorites would always tell you that their biryani is not nearly good enough, that you would have to fly to Karachi for that treat. Still room for dessert? Let’s get a Royal kulfi (traditional ice-cream) in Muslim Town or lychee ice-cream at Chaman on Mall Road…
Well, it’s not even 1am… What’s next? Shall we have coffee at Packages Mall?
No, let’s have tea and aloo paratha/potato pancake at Chaaye Khana in Gulberg instead… I feel like having chanay after. Let’s go see Mohammed in Bhatti Gate!
La dolce vita in Lahore!
Here, too, you see the revival of a rich, old musical tradition. Tabla, keyboard, drum, and guitar makers make magic with their gifted hands! This is a city where music has always mingled and flowed, even under challenging political conditions. In 2015, Andy Schocken and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy make a documentary, Song of Lahore, about a group of Pakistani classical musicians from Lahore heading to the Lincoln Center in New York to play with the Wynston Marsalis Jazz Band. You can only imagine how they struggle to play Brubeck’s classic Take Five!
For a month, my daughter joins me to intern at a local hospital. Lo and behold, in the psychiatry department! In Pakistan…
A man goes berserk because he suspects his wife’s cheating on him… How do we call that condition, Doc?
A newly-wed young woman finds out his husband is having open affairs, with other men. Is she suffering from depression?
A woman injecting drugs must have OCD… Huh? And why do we send drug users away with painkillers?
Doc, this man is bulimic and this is not in our textbook!
Another woman in her 30s seems to be having a manic episode. Is she bipolar, or histrionic? Wait a minute, histrionic – melodramatic behaviour designed to attract attention – oh, like Trump!
Why are hospitals so underfunded that the stratified system creates such an unequal access to care, depending on whether you are a private, semi-private, or public patient? In a country like this, it’s tempting to stick to strictly clinical work, for doing anything beyond is already an implicit political act…
What joy and privilege of being on the road, always! And the bonus of a rare mother-daughter bonding trip where we enjoy each delicious meal together and talk about the gender dimensions of psychiatric cases!
While my daughter struggles with the history of madness in Urdu-glish, I roam around the photogenic walled city to take more portraits of children. In a country where nothing can be taken for granted, these children learn quickly to adapt and survive. Many of them work, especially in the vast informal sector. They alone can be the subject of a photography book: Children of Old Lahore…
Lahore and Pakistan fall out of most travellers’ radar or comfort zone. The crowds, noise, and traffic can be intense, but with a bit of patience, this magical city rewards you with her unparalleled splendor!
Our gratitude to so many Lahorites who generously connect us to their beloved city: Rastee & Hiba for introducing us to the intricate medical world of Pakistan; Dr. Rafiq, a quintessential Lahorite with an outsized heart and passion for food and life who treat us with beyond Michelin-star local dishes together with his friend, Abdullah, and teaches us about Lahore traffic psychology (sheer madness!); Beenish & Haseeb for Lahore History & Cuisine 101; and Dr. Qasim for Advanced Lahore Cuisine & Society 202. Zainab introduces fusion cuisine to us and took us to Chit-Chaat to try pappu burger and cheesecake with chai syrup served by transgender waiters (progressive sexual politics by the restaurant owner). Ilyas and family open their home and the world inside Mori Gate to us; the legendary halwa poori chef, Mohammed Jamshed, who feeds us sweet breakfasts; Imran, the UK-educated grocer, and all the chefs and residents of Bhatti Gate who allow this bewildered foreigner to take glimpses of their lives through her lens. Pakistani hospitality obliges; Dr. Jamshed and Khaled take the overnight train from Karachi to pay us a day visit, and, with Isharque, we tour the historic (1880s!) library of Punjab University, Bahria town colony, and finish lunch at 6pm (!) with mutton mandi, the best Saudi Arabian dish that comes across as so mild after three full weeks of spice! Shoukria/thank you never seems to be a sufficient word here!
O city of Lahore, may your liveliness perpetuate forever
The breeze of your streets allured me to be settled here.
– Nasir Kazmi
Next: K2 Base Camp, Pakistan!
All Content © 2023 by Jennifer Chan