What is Pakistan’s national dish? Hint: It’s not daal roti!

Published: September 23, 2015
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In order to qualify as the national dish of Pakistan, it would need to be a common household feature across Pakistan.

During lunch, a colleague asked us what is the national dish of Pakistan, and everyone present provided a different answer. I said that’s easy, it has to be daal roti (lentils and flat bread), right? This was quickly rebutted by someone mentioning that it has to be a rice-based dish and that roti is not as common as you may think, especially in the past decade or so. 

One would assume the answer is biryani? I mean who does not eat biryani? But no, it cannot be. Biryani is too elite a meal and too limited to certain regions of this vast and culturally diverse country. Well then, what does Google have to say?

Photo: Express Tribune

Nihari – Most of the hits indicate that nihari is the national dish of Pakistan. However, this also cannot be correct. It is an Arabic dish more popular in Punjab and Sindh and that too in the larger cities for those who can afford it. Parts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Balochistan almost completely overlook dishes such as nihari and biryani. Surely, in order to qualify as the national dish of Pakistan, it would need to be a common household feature across Pakistan.

Photo: Sibtain Naqvi

Naturally, every region in Pakistan would have a different local dish and the dish we may end up choosing as our national dish would not be that popular, either by way of preference or necessity, in a lot of regions. However, at the very least, it has to be a meat-based dish, right? Wrong. With a very low per capita income, it has to be an affordable meal.

So, what is the national dish of Pakistan? What is the one meal had in homes of the majority from Gilgit-Baltistan to the Makran coast?

At the very outset, it is important to lay down certain ground rules which are or rather should be necessary to determine what the national dish of a particular country is.

First and foremost, it is not simply the most common dish the country is known for. For example, sushi is what Japan is most known for. However, the most consumed meal there is either ramen or donburi and sushi is only reserved for somewhat special occasions. Secondly, it is not the dish the people of the country desire the most but rather actually end up eating the most. So, instead of a nice roast dinner, the bacon butty would top the list in the United Kingdom.

Thirdly, it is not just a matter of the dish being the most consumed in the country, it has to be a dish that is eaten regularly in most parts of the country.

Lastly, it has to be fairly significant. So, chai (tea) roti or any other form of bread with tea which almost all of Pakistan has for breakfast is out.

Now that we have disregarded biryani and nihari, let’s look at some other contenders.

Aloo gosht (meat and potato gravy)How many times have you heard this?

What’s for dinner?

Why its aalu gosht. Again?

The fact is that mutton is expensive and as common as this food item is in the households of most of you reading this article, unfortunately, a majority of the public cannot afford such luxuries.

Photo: Pinterest

Chicken salan or masala (chicken gravy) – Nope, once again, too expensive and thus not as common a feature in a majority of Pakistani homes. All sorts of meat are sadly out then. As a country, we may have perfected cooking our meat but it is not something the common man can have that often.

Photo: Express Tribune

Daal roti – Yes, finally a serious contender and my first guess as the national food. The fact is that daal and roti is very popular indeed, however, it is not as widely consumed if one looks at it region wise. If one looks at certain regions of northern Punjab, then yes, it is still the most consumed meal but with rising prices of daal¸ even in regions where daal and roti was almost a daily occurrence, less expensive alternatives have replaced it. Besides, daal and roti is not as common in parts of K-P and Balochistan.

Photo: Flickr

Daal chawal (Lentils and rice) So if roti with daal is not so popular in the drier and colder regions of the country, then is it more popular with rice?

No.

Sorry daal, you just did not have what it takes to please the whole country.

Photo: Flickr

Pulao – In any form, kabuli or otherwise, made with chickpeas or meat or some other method, pulao is very popular in parts of K-P and Balochistan, and in fact is more regularly eaten than dishes which require bread. But rice generally, if one looks at the whole country, is not as popular, despite biryani’s attempt at glorifying the seed.

Photo: Pinterest

Sabzi roti (vegetables and flat bread) – This covers cauliflower, peas, potatoes, aubergine, ladyfingers, etc. cooked either independently or in a mixed format. Well, if all the vegetables are taken as a whole, then sabzi might actually be the most consumed dish in all the regions of Pakistan. However, for the sake of being fair to non-vegetable foods, we must treat all vegetables are a separate dish.

Photo: Flickr

If not any of above, then what single dish could take the title?

Well, according to random questions asked from strangers from across the country representing a not so very accurate cross section of society, race and religion, the most common dish may actually be saag roti. So, it seems, roti may end up in the winning equation after all.

Photo: Tribune

However, how does saag potentially top the supposed popularity contest? It turns out that as saag is not very expensive, it is preferred over other vegetables and lentils in rural areas throughout a majority of Pakistan. That potentially makes it the most consumed dish region-wise and perhaps in sheer quantity as well. With a bit of desi makhan (local butter), it even mimics the national colours.

So does that qualify it to be the national dish of Pakistan?

In my personal opinion, no it does not. Why not? I don’t know, naming something as banal as saag as our national dish would not be doing justice to the cuisine.

Which brings me to my point regarding the difficulty in selecting a national dish for a country as culturally diverse and rich in its culinary heritage as Pakistan, it’s impossible. So, let’s all just settle for biryani and call it a day, and, while we are at it, lets also declare cricket as our national sport – about time.

Umer Shahid

Umer Shahid

The author has been called to the bar of England & Wales and is presently practicing as a corporate lawyer in Islamabad.

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

  • Sami

    Every region in Pakistan have many specialties. Once i visited Faisalabad in the past and i was amazed that this city alone have more than 10 variations of rice dishes with many local names. So there are tons of dishes and most of them infact are undiscovered so far. But kindly many things have been imposed on us so this topic to talk about the unified dish as the national one should be closed.Recommend

  • Videlicet

    Mouthwatering photos:)Recommend

  • Parvez

    A great blog after quite some time…….you had me guessing and the elimination process was a culinary treat.Recommend

  • https://www.blogger.com/blogger.g?blogID=1598850425736321559#allposts Supriya Arcot

    S l u r p y … pics …Recommend

  • Rohan

    The bullets fired from an ak 47 could be a national dish too for Pakistanis.Sadly they are inedible for non PakistanisRecommend

  • Kritica[L]

    This eloquence of this article puts Shakespeare in question. The sheer depravity of common sensibility marks the epitome of codswallop.
    After reading this article and pondering over its essence thoroughly, I want to sell out my cattle and goats, stuff my backpack and take the next flight to Gilgit, to hunt for Markhor since it is my national animal. After all this article establishes that commonality of an entity qualifies it as a national symbol.
    Then I will return to Lahore and look at the skies as dules(Groups of Doves(Or Drones(?) Now)) fly above as I sit on a jasmine-laden easy chair made of nothing but Deodar and wait for the butcher to give me a call back.Recommend

  • Jamila Khan

    Does your obnoxious sarcasm stem from the ubiquitous filth so characteristic of the country you hail from? I think some one oughta do research to establish the correlation. Hmm….Recommend

  • vivek

    Touche !!Recommend

  • Unknown

    This article has nothing to do with India or Indians… so please keep your hate and filth to yourself and people like you. Atleast we are trying to improve as a nation unlike you people that have elected a terrorist as the PM!Recommend

  • jerseybbt

    Man, this article was a waste of time and spaceRecommend

  • MJ

    If you are from Karachi…
    Gutka, Cigarette & Chai
    If you are from Lahore…
    Bhuna Khota gosht
    If you are from KPK…
    Naswar (too easy)
    If you are from Balochistan…
    Sajji (no guarantee that it was not made from an already dead chicken)Recommend

  • Dr Dixit
  • Dr Dixit

    Well, we all know what India’s national drink is, don’t we ?!Recommend

  • مظفر احمد

    بھت دلچسپ…… میرے خیال سے بریانی پاکستانیوں کی پسندیدہ ڈش ھے… جو آسانی سے 35/40روپے میں مل جاتی ھے… بس یہ کویء نہں جانتا کہ بیچاری مرغی /مرغا کس حال میں تھا جب اسے چاولوں کی بارات میں شامل کیا گیا…. یعنی اسے ذبح کیا گیا یافوت شدہ تھا…. Recommend

  • longlivepak

    National bird is drone, predator drone, not the Chinese copy u guys call l”home made”Recommend

  • Brutus

    Obviously, the Gaye ka Gosht.Recommend

  • Jayman

    Taking your pointer, I did some research and I did uncover a correlation. Have you heard of the American phase “eat lead”? Since Pak has the highest ownership of AK47s – even more than Russia, it goes without saying that more Pakistanis “eat lead” than any other nationality. The connection between a culinary piece and AK47s must be starting to get clearer by now.Recommend

  • Farid Midhet

    Why have one national dish when you can have many, perhaps each of the ones listed here could be our national dish. There’re a thousand more not listed here: Haash of Hazara community of Quetta, Chanps sold outside the district courts in Multan, Balochi Sajji, and the sumptuous Rosh meat of north Balochistan! Why, I’d like yo have a Parliament of national dishes. Recommend

  • ijaz Mir

    Traveling by road in Pakistan from Karachi to china boarder. Dal roti is available on all road side restaurants which is safest food and cheap.Recommend

  • Milind A

    Mouth-watering pics!! The sabji-roti dish seems to have the bajra roti – you forgot to mention it.Recommend

  • Adi Pranoto

    Observing Pakistan for few years make me want to taste Pakistani dishes. Unfortunately I cannot find Pakistani restaurant in my city, Bandung, Indonesia, although there are (very) few Indian restaurant. But, are Indian dishes same as Pakistani dishes?.Recommend

  • Hasan Khan

    I would advise all Pakistanis not to reply to such ignorance shown by people of below par IQ level, lacking respect for anyone other than themselves; and in that regard I would have to resort to the axiom: ‘Barking dogs seldom bite’Recommend

  • Miyagi Jr.

    Agree with Umer, I’d go for Biryani any day, infact any time of the day.Recommend

  • Miyagi Jr.

    What is your national dish, let me guess, India hmmm, too many Hindus, and too many sacred cow S…Recommend

  • Parvez

    Ajeet would be proud of you.Recommend

  • Salman

    How could Nihaari not be national dish when the Nihaari League is in power???Recommend

  • Videlicet

    Pakistani food and North Indian food should be largely similar I presume. Rotis, dal, biriyani, pulao are quite popular in most parts of India.Recommend

  • sterry

    If rape was considered a dish, then India could rightfully claim this honour. After all, India is the rape center of the world. Tourists and commoners alike are the meal is this Indian national dish!Recommend

  • Hamzah Farooq

    The names and appearances are somewhat the same, the ingredients differ slightly, changing the dish in essenceRecommend

  • jayant

    if drones could be eaten , it surely would have been a national dish. well it is a national bird for sure…Recommend

  • Vinod

    Me tooRecommend

  • gt

    Not a single mention of karhai? Namak to Butt to Naka!! Even a weird white karhai created by food shows for those scared of chatpata! I had a pen friend, Sarah Khan, whom I miss terribly, long lost in the mists of time and New Jersey, with whom I used to chat about Burns Road, all the types of karhais we could list and and the corresponding number of burger accents speaking Urdu! Umerji, with all due respect, you would have been fair game for us!! Sadly, our beloved Farah Jahanzaib is no more and those innocent days are long past!Recommend

  • abbassin

    Hasan you are so right ‘barking dogs seldom bite’ however as for me, I am just annoyed by lack of peace and quiet in my neighborhood with their incessant barking!!!Recommend

  • Adi Pranoto

    In appearance “padang chicken gulai” from West Sumatera, Indonesia, look like “chicken masala” although some of its ingredients are different. Padang chicken gulai does not use yoghurt but coconut milk. But maybe it’s originally from chicken masala.

    Historians in my place say that West Sumatera culinary influenced by Indian culinary that brought by Indian people who migrated to West Sumatera since 15th century. Indeed, like Indian culinary, West Sumatera culinary use many spices too.Recommend

  • Rohan

    That wasn’t even close to a joke , try againRecommend

  • Karmanye Thadani

    I am an Indian as well, and I condemn this nonsensical comment from Rohan, who doesn’t represent most educated Indians, who love Atif Aslam, Fahad Khan, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Ali Zafar. By the way, I am an ET blogger too, and you may like these two blogs by me-Recommend

  • Karmanye Thadani

    I am an Indian too, and I condemn this nonsensical comment from Rohan, who doesn’t represent most educated Indians, who love Atif Aslam, Fahad Khan, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Ali Zafar. By the way, I am an ET blogger too, and you may like these two blogs by me.Recommend

  • Karmanye Thadani

    I am an Indian, and even I condemn this nonsensical comment from Rohan, who doesn’t represent most educated Indians, who love Atif Aslam, Fahad Khan, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Ali Zafar. By the way, I am an ET blogger too, and you may like these two blogs by me-

    http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/22366/i-am-an-indian-and-i-strongly-condemn-the-attack-on-ali-hassan-raza/

    and

    http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/27911/we-need-to-stop-exaggerating-minority-victimhood-in-india-and-pakistan/

    However, what you just posted really wasn’t even funny.Recommend

  • Cindy Murphy

    Once I tasted Daal chawal. It was delicious. Thank you the author for this post, memories came flooding.Recommend

  • Rahatullah Mallick

    I noticed this article speaks a lot of income disparity. That can be found and any society but in my opinion this factor may have an affect on how frequently the “masses” consume that particular food. I think the basis for any dish to qualify as a national dish should be its popularity or at least wide spread familiarity. On those basis, it should either be Biryani or Palak ka Saag.
    P.S. Its always biryani :DRecommend

  • Fifi

    Nihari. It is the best. Biryani. It is the king.
    Saag is disgusting btw and smells like farts.Recommend