Walking through the corridors of white painted colonial buildings, one can get overwhelmed by the eating options available on Karachi’s food street, Burnes road, named after a British spy-doctor. The crowded two-way road offers a whole gamut of food options to thousands of visitors every day. From barbecue to fast food, roadside paan to family dining halls, the strip has something to delight everyone’s palate.
During the daytime, Burnes Road is full of sounds of horn honks and people chatting from buildings made during the British Raj but this street, like many places in Karachi, has a night life. Recently, the District South administration in the city of lights has successfully developed this famous food street by making it pedestrian friendly at night time.
I could not resist visiting the street myself, where I spoke to pioneers of food who cherish their culture and roots, turning it into a legacy that lives on in the hearts of the people of this metropolis.
The smoke coming from the W-11 bus during the day turns into smell of Nihari by night coming from none other than Malik Nihari, a famous restaurant on Burnes Road. Rumor has it that Nihari, apart from having a depth of flavor, is derived from the study of Eastern herbal medicine as its consumption is preventive against sinus, the common cold and the onset of fever during winters.
Malik Gul Ahmed, owner of Malik Nihari on Burnes Road said, “70 years ago, Nihari was a winter’s delicacy. Its consumption is known to be preventive against sinus and the common cold.” The rich thick curry with tender chunks of beef, slow cooked to perfection is popular for keeping one warm during dropping temperatures, he added.
These recipes, like heritage, get passed down from generation to generation. Ahmed who is 65 years old has a gracile appearance and a pencil moustache arching over his lips. He said he learned the art of cooking Nihari from his father and has taught it to his son, who is a Bahria University business graduate student.
“Mughal Emperor Shahjahan appointed my forefathers in his Darbar as Shahi cooks and conferred them with the title of ‘Malik’ which has been part of the family’s name for 300 years,” he said.
The strong family roots have undoubtedly helped them to turn into trusted brands at Burnes Road. Both my mother and I are frequent visitors of the food street, as the food reminds her of her ancestral roots in Delhi, India. I feel like brands like Malik’s have a great responsibility to not only maintain the taste but to also keep the family legacy alive.
The Partition in 1947 compelled many to leave Delhi in India and migrate to Karachi in Pakistan, but one thing that they did not leave behind was the food legacy that lives on even after all these years of separation.
One such person is Muhammad Zahoor who is known as “Taya” Zahoor on Burnes Road.
Unlike many eateries on Burnes Road, Zahoor sells Biryani on the roadside without having a proper sitting place for his customers. He is one of the people who saw this congested road turn into a food haven during the 1960s. With a shine in his black eyes and wrinkles on his forehead, Zahoor dives deep into the ocean of memories he has gathered at the age of 75 and remembers the street of Ballimaran, the same place where the famous Urdu Mirza Ghalib poet used to live.
He has a caldron placed on the side of the road with benches placed around the pot for seating. Despite this informal dining space, he has loyal customers who visit him every day during lunch hours.
Zahoor has four sons and two daughters. Two of his sons are in the same business while the other two are working in a bank.
“I want all my sons to get in the same business of selling biryani and take this forward when I am not around,” he said.
Zahoor says he did not learn making biryani, he inherited it. “It is not just a recipe; it is a memento of our elders that we have preserved with passion,” Zahoor said while clenching his fist and gazing through the old structured pre-colonial buildings at Burnes Road.
He further elaborated how he is merely running the stall out of his love for Delhi’s food and to continue the food legacy that lives on in his heart.
Lubna Shareef, a former cooking show expert based in Karachi said there is something embedded in Pakistani culture that led these eateries to continue their family businesses at Burnes Road.
“It shows how they have respected what their forefathers had started over their own desires. It is remarkable how they have chosen to carry on the food legacies. It is as though they have exalted their history by making it to be their present,” she said.
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