Deals on Dining: Lahore, Pakistan

Gowalmandi has changed so much after commissioning in October 2000. Official hype is over, but Gowalmandi Heritage and Food Street still offers some of the best dinning deals in Lahore, Pakistan’s second largest city.

A good mixture of past architectural glories and present culinary delights, Gowalmandi (like Choona Mandi, Lakar Mandi, Chamra Mandi and many other mandis) came up in Lahore during Mughal era. It gained popularity as a food centre after independence in 1947 when Kashmiri immigrants from Amratsar (India) settled here. With them came new types and traditions of food – siri paye, nail nihari, hareesa and now as one trader of the street says, “apart from variety of cuisine at 99 eating joints, Gowalmandi Food and Heritage Street has become a new social phenomenon in Lahore.”

It is a wonder what a few million rupees spent by city development agencies on the renovation of built heritage with balconies and angular projections lining the street have done to the ambience of the street. Lahorites have already (and justifiably) stated comparing it with lanes in Rome, Paris and Athens. Watch out. Because word is out and it says that similar food streets with continental food on M M Alam Road – world apart from Gowalmandi Food Street — and another desi food street around Lohari Gate are being planned. Thanks to the marketing success, food streets are being planned in Multan (near Hussain Aghai), Fasilabad (near Ghanta Ghar) and a few other cities of Pakistan as well.

Sizzling spicy foods on display in Gowalmandi reminds of what Vasco de Gama shouted after setting his foot on South Asian soils on the dawn of May 21, 1498, “For Christ and spices!” No data for consumption of spices in Gowalmandi Food Street are available but a proprietor of one of the biggest shops in the street told, “On the average I sell about 120 Kilograms mutton and over 40 kilograms of chicken every day. People prefer to eat mutton karahi and chicken barbecued. A milk shop proprietor said, “My daily milk consumption – in the form of chilled milk, yogurt, Kheer, khoya, lassi — is over 2000 kilograms.”

In the street, every body is lead by aroma of the food in front or on the fire. Variety of languages greets your ear. Unfazed by noisy crowd and the bustle, the waiters will get the orders and you will get the whole picture while sitting in an open street nicely lined with thin upright tiles, though sometime orders may change. I was served Makhan Mutton Karahi when I had ordered chicken leg piece — an ultimate achievement in food in this part of the world. I did not mind this deal at all but the large family that had ordered the sumptuous dish had to wait longer and made lot of observations.

In a very short period of time, the Food Street has become a major tourists’ attraction in Lahore for locals as well as foreigners. One can always see them eating, roaming around or standing near a huge black vat, where Peshawri Chappal Kababs are made, and taking photographs. Davis, a khalis Angreez whom I met in Food Street asked lot many question and remarked, “In west there is hardly any place where one can see food being cooked. It is so mouth-watering just to watch”. Sikhs from across the boarders are also seen wearing “what is it in the Food Street” look. Davis opined that Food Street (and Pakistan in general) is one of the most inexpensive places in the world as far as food is concerned.

Lately, once again I have had the pleasure to visit the Food Street. I had enough on my own plate, literally, to deal with but I could not help noticing what was happening on an open-air dinning table being shared by another family — mother, father and five children. Each one of the children had thought of something different to order but they ultimately settled for Tez Massala Mukkhan Mutton Karahi and Chicken Tikkas followed by chilled Kheer served in thoothees.

Once the ordered food was laid out, the disciplinarian mother served the helpings in plates of her children and husband, of course giving him the best and maximum (a good old-tradition withering rapidly). Mother told the children to start their supper with the name of Allah Almighty, the most merciful and the most beneficent. After counting the pieces in his plate, the younger boy instead of eating innocently remarked, “Mama! Just like home, you are giving me lesser even in the Food Street. She looked at her food-obsessed son sternly and spontaneously pointed out, “And just like home, you are looking what others have got instead of concentrating at what is in front of you even in the Food Street .” The dialogue reminds me of my own mother. What has the place got to do with parenting? It remains the same. I keep thinking.

Apart from vendors selling different wares ranging from desi attar (perfume) to pup dogs and persistent beggars walking the street, few shops are still doing business other than food. Proprietor of a photographer shop is seen sitting ideal these days. He can be in real business when visitors of the street will start having “for the memory” photographs there. But one does not see performance of folk entertainers these days. Now that is perhaps arranged for foreign delegations or local VIPs only. Folk performance for commoners could have helped the business in the long run.

Some of the waiters are still seen in uniform (black bow ties and all that), but the presentation of food still needs lot of improvement in general. The traders of the street should think of changing cutlery, crockery, napkins and their mutilated and soiled menu cards. The traditional furniture was good as long as it lasted after the inauguration but now most shops have same plastic chairs and tables. This could be replaced with better quality and comfortable furniture with a touch of local cultural. And, each shop I have had a chance to visit needs a washbasin. The decorative curtains on the balconies of upper stories have stated sagging. Residents are seen peeping through those curtains. One does not require calling for the students from College of Arts for their replacement.

Like vehicular traffic if the braggers are also contained out side the six entrances, Gowalmandi Food Street is an experience packed with dining options. Who says that you have to wait for Bassant or Food Festival to go there? It has become a permanent cultural feature of Lahore, hard to ignore for anyone.

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