Karachi Burns Road: The Holy Grail for foodies

Published: February 5, 2014
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Come night and the street metamorphoses into a cornucopia of savoury and sweet, awash in garish neon signs advertising the delectable offerings of each eating place. PHOTO: SIBTAIN NAQVI

The waiter picked up my Naan. He saw my quizzical expression and said,

“It’s not hot anymore. I am getting you a fresh one.”

Then he comes back and asks in a solicitous whisper if I am enjoying myself. With such courtliness, how could I not?

This Michelin star service was not at an exorbitantly priced restaurant. No, the setting of this delightful exchange was Waheed Nihari at Karachi’s Burns Road a.k.a. food paradise. Ernest Hemingway called Paris a moveable feast – in the same vein, Karachi is an immovable feast and Burns Road the location.

The food capital of Pakistan is reputed to be Lahore.

I beg to differ.

Lahore has her temptations but Karachi’s place in gastronomic heaven is firm with her culinary repertoire running the gamut from Paye to pizza and ravioli to Rabri.

To enlighten those who have not embarked on the food pilgrimage or haven’t gone outside their comfort zone, Burns Road is a street in the heart of the old part of Karachi and is famous for its traditional (read mouth-watering) food items such as Nihari, Haleem, Kebabs, fried fish and desserts such as Rabri and traditional drinks such as Lassi.

If you take the road from the Urdu Bazaar and turn to the traffic light at the far end, you’ll enter the Holy Grail for foodies. During the day the road looks like any other main road with buses spewing smoke and pedestrians choking the sidewalks. But come night and the street metamorphoses into a cornucopia of savoury and sweet, awash in garish neon signs advertising the delectable offerings of each eating place.

Photo: Sibtain Naqvi

It is serious eating here, with no fancy presentations or garnishes, just honest, good food that lures the eater into a bacchanal of gluttony. My first experience was no light hearted affair but a complete immersion in the victuals on offer.

While perusing the various places, even the most casual observer will notice the predominance of restaurants that hark back to the city of Delhi. You can hear the echoes of Chandi Chawk and Nizammuddin and, in fact, I found more than a passing resemblance between a Nihari place here and the famous Karim restaurant in Delhi.

According to senior denizens of the area, many people who migrated from Delhi to Karachi preferred to live on Burns Road.

“In the 1950s, the newly migrated people were looking for dishes that were famous in Delhi and the shopkeepers of that time not only adapted the names and reproduced recipes of Delhi’s traditional fare but also decided to include the name Delhi while naming their shops to conjure an effect,” said Abbas Raza, an elderly resident of Burns Road.

Before partition, Rizwan’s grandfather was running a sweets shop near Jama Masjid Delhi and today he owns an establishment that is now known as Delhi Darbar Sweets. Many shops, including Rizwan’s, that opened in the late 1950s and early 1960s are still going strong and it is a testament to their popularity that even at four in the morning I have to get past a traffic jam to get some Nihari for my Sehri in Ramzan.

Photo: Sibtain Naqvi

Waheed’s Nihari is probably the best known place and one bite of the hot, gelatinous concoction will make it clear why it is so. Perhaps the cleanliness of the floor might deter some, but do not be alarmed since the plates are incontestably clean. The ambience resonates with that of the fictional Weatherbury Inn from Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, where the drinking cups are described in much the same vein. The rough hewn patrons mix happily with the affluent who are here partly because of nostalgia of student days but mostly drawn in by the siren call of the Nihari and the butter fried Kebabs.

Opposite Waheed are two of the many gems in this treasure house, namely the Gulab Jamun maker and the fried fish seller. Names are withheld at their request but even I felt that the hot, deep fried treats should really be kept a secret.

You can choose your fish and have it cut any way you desire. A slow dip in the searing oil, a sound of frying that’s music to my stomach, a squeeze of lemon, a pinch of spices and you will have your taste buds dancing in no time. The fish is fresh from the morning catch and the taste is enough to make the English swear off their bland version.

Photo: Sibtain Naqvi

If Nihari or fish is not your thing then perhaps you will opt for the other import from across the border, Haleem.

Mazedar Haleem, the city’s most famous Haleem seller, is head quartered here, as is Karachi Haleem. These people are no mere mortals but magicians who take the humble pulses, toss in a bit of meat and some spices and create a stew fit for a monarch and healthy to boot.

Haleem was probably created to debunk the theory that anything hedonistic is bad for your health. You can even get it canned to send to your loved ones abroad or store it as rations for nuclear fallout. Even being encased in a lead bunker isn’t so bad if the canned supplies last so I usually have a few pounds of canned stuff lying around the house.

Moving from the Delhi foodstuffs you come to the relative newcomer from the north, the Sajji.

The meat, usually chicken or mutton, is minimally spiced and slowly cooked over a fire, then cut up and sprinkled with masala and lemon juice. Agha Sajji House and Al-Sajjad Sajji are two prominent places. The roaring fires and meat laden spits do whet your appetite and the droves of people munching away prove it to be so.

Photo: Sibtain Naqvi

Burns Road caters to a variety of tastes, so capricious epicures need not worry. If snacks are what you are looking for then look no further than Fresco Sweets, famous for its Dahi Phulki which balances sweet and tart perfectly and the Phulkis seemingly made out of sunbeams and angel mist – so light that they can almost be inhaled in but with a burst of flavour that hits you and keeps lulling away long after you have had your fill.

Burns Road is also host to some of the city’s famous sweet places too. Delhi Rabri House proves that Nihari and Haleem are not the only things the Delhites were adept at, for the Rabri here is sinfully good.

Kulfi, ice cream, Faluda, and sweet milk are all on offer and awfully good too, but it’s the Rabri that brings in the customers. I was told that the maker has been making the same creamy stuff for over thirty years with no intention of stopping soon.

Amen to that!

Photo: Sibtain Naqvi

After sampling Karhai, Nihari, Sajji or Haleem many want to pass over the rich desserts and move on to something refreshing to wash down the good stuff. The Punjab Lassi House has been doing that for over a quarter of a century. The Lassi slips down your throat, singing the songs of the Punjab and erasing the after effects of spicy food.

Photo: Sibtain Naqvi

In summer, it is a godsend and banishes the heat demons just as effectively. Sweet, salty or churned with a crumbling Perha sweetmeat, the Lassi here is the benchmark for the rest, the highpoint of any dairy drink.

Burns Road’s position as the dowager empress of the food world is firmly entrenched. There are other places in different parts of Karachi and the country which have great food and firm clientele. But if there is one spot that throws down the gauntlet and stands apart, it’s this magical street of sumptuous, succulent treats.

Sibtain Naqvi

Sibtain Naqvi

A writer and social commentator who has written extensively for various Pakistani English dailies. An art critic accredited by the AICA and the Royal College of Art, London, he dabbles in music and sports writing and tweets @Sibtain_N (twitter.com/Sibtain_N)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • http://www.tanzeel.wordpress.com Tanzeel

    What a mouthwatering read. :)Recommend

  • Ali HMB

    DELICIOUS!!! My mouth is literally covered in drool by the time i reached the last para, man o man awesome piece!! A true testament to a foodie!Recommend

  • Akoo Canada

    FOOD COMA!!!!! As Liz Lemon on 30 Rock would say, ” I want to go to there.” Sibtain you are a true connoisseur of our nostalgic appetites Recommend

  • Omer Purdue

    You have sold me to spend tonight at Burns Road!

    Like a fool i waste my hard earned cash on pretentious imitations like the droves of cafes and Italian restaurants situated in the West End area and Five star Hotels of this city, when i should be visiting our true patriotic food hub.,

    i loved the historical lesson on pakistani/indian cuisine, there is certainly a very rich history curtailed within Burns Road, thanks SibtainRecommend

  • firyal

    Such a delicious blog leaves one with hunger pains- an intrusion into the archives of my mind of days long gone. Recommend

  • http://pakistaniforlife.blogspot.com Saad Siddiqui

    While agreeing with the blogger, Its a request to Lahoris , please learn to cook “Biryani” !Recommend

  • http://@net Landhi wala

    @Akoo Canada:
    Who is Liz? What is 30 Rock? Eh?..
    Is that the Canada hotel in Gulshan e Iqbal?Recommend

  • http://@net Landhi wala

    @Akoo Canada:
    @Landhi wala
    Pun intended.Recommend

  • Rabail

    wowwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww…………………………………….
    I realy really Miss NEHARI from Karachi……………..Isloo has everything loveable except…………….Foods of Karachi………………..
    Miss you Badly My sweet and spicy KARACHI………………………Recommend

  • http://www.pltacademy.com Travel_Tart

    Lahore or Karachi… Whole Pakistan is beautiful with special cuisine!Recommend

  • Ali Q London

    Tasty, a treat to read. The way you have described the ingredients and the food is outstanding feels as if im inside burns road whilst reading the blogRecommend

  • http://eatoye.pk/karachi Online food delivery in Karachi

    Thanks for sharing. Burns road is the best place to enjoy favorite food in a very casual atmosphere.Recommend

  • Ahmed Iqbal

    Hahahaha. Come on man. There was no point of disowning Lahore of ‘Food Capital’ title. You may have Burns road (in my bucket list now), whereas Lahore is just another name for one giant eatery. Recommend

  • Nadia

    though i have been raised in burns road, your directions from urdu bazar is rather confusing!Recommend

  • Talha Sabri

    Critics launch and crush chefs’ careers and, to some degree at least, make and break restaurants. Most eateries spend years honing their craft in other peoples’ kitchens before opening their own places; restaurateurs typically toiled for others, then mortgaged their lives to investors.

    But i must applaud Sibtain Naqvi for giving another boost of already vested confidence within our national landmark , Burns Road.

    Such posts are really necessary to renew our enthusiasm that treasures are still stoved in our country, these treasures are already there and we must fall in love with Burns Road again.

    What a natural flair, reading this blog most certainly has made me hungry for some good ol Nihari with Garnishes, Bone Marrow and a fresh hot Tandoori Naan.Recommend

  • Shahwilayat

    The standard of cooking at Burns Road is quite high compared to the karachi style dhaba eateries. Burns Road has good quality ingredients and no real technical issues with the cooking at my meal. The style is quite complex, with several elements on each plate. You can find all assortments of Karhai, Kheema at any vendors, This will not be to everyone’s taste, but the combinations generally seemed to me to work quite well.

    The menu format is rather unusual, but this didn’t seem to be putting off the locals.

    Overall a wonderful insight first hand reporting of the magic of Burns Road, a thoroughly nostalgic and enjoyable read.Recommend

  • Nazia ABN

    As an expecting wife, i will have to convince my better half for a trip to satiate my pregnancy cravings at these eateries, i guess i have a rough framework on how to start my food travelogue, will start off with some mutton samosas, have some peshawri mutton karhai, some paneer reshmi, a bit of Nihari with “nali” and finally top it off with Baloch Ice cream, not to mention the tons and tons of Carbs i shall intake with endless orders of Roghni Garlic Naan……DELISH!!!! Recommend

  • Mount Lavinia

    Great blog piece, as always Sibtain, thanks to this i have already penciled in a trip to Burns Road this weekRecommend

  • Stranger

    No one makes biryani like Hyderabadis from AP India. Many from hyd have migrated to Karachi rather than lahore. Thats why u see good biryani joints in Karachi.Recommend

  • Queen

    ET please don’t publish such blogs especially when people are working in their offices and still two hours to go before lunch break ;)Recommend

  • Jawaid

    I can never forget Punjab Lassi House during my DJ College days. You just did not drink it, you ate it.Recommend

  • NS

    I went on to eat Waheed’s Kebabs this time around and it was awesome as usual..Recommend

  • Lalit Sardana

    What a wonderful mouthwatering read. I live in Gurgaon near Delhi and food is my passion. Gurgaon is also a foodies paradise, but mostly the restaurant variety, there are restaurant districts such as Cyber Hub and Sector 29, but nothing like the Burns Road or the Lawrence Road in Amritsar.

    I wish someday I could travel to Karachi and sample the delicacies at Burns Road.Recommend

  • Sibtain

    @ Lalit
    You are very welcome. Come by and I will take you to WaheedRecommend

  • Panel Beaters Florida

    this is very nice blog i really like itRecommend

  • Imran Rasool Hashmi

    MAANNN!!!! just when i thought that Ill not remember Burns Road and not think about it….I had to go through this read….I am dying to get my hands on the nihari, fry kabab, rabri and lassi….I miss karachi :'(Recommend

  • Umair Khan

    Brilliantly done, Sibtain! Waheed is the eternal stop whenever I return to Karachi.

    And what a lovely surprise to catch my favorite O-Levels read (Far from the Madding Crowd) included in an ode to my favorite restaurant: “There, ’tis clane dirt; and we all know what that is”

    Keep eating, keep writing!Recommend

  • m Khan

    Still karachiites or non-karachiites, no pakistani or Bangladeshis can ever come close to making authentic kacchi biryani falaknumahi or Kalyan biryani or hyderabadi haleem. Pakistanis can copy awadhi delhi hyderabadi cuisine. Original is still original. Nothing beats old city hyderabad charminar eateries. Lucknowi Tunday kebabs. Old delhi Nihari joints.special hyderabadi Nihari joints with tongue. Recommend