Most of the images the world sees of Pakistan are of political unrest and violence, but this incredibly rich and spirited country is made of so much more than its recent and accursed reputation as a home base for terrorism, corruption and Al Qaeda retirement opportunities. It is a country of myriad languages, ethnicities and religions… and exquisite food.
Karachi is Pakistan's feistiest city, its most multi-ethnic, its most tolerant, and the capital of its Sufi culture. It's where the nation's artists are freest, where the adventurous can mix in a city whose boundaries were always fluid, and where the irreverent can always be assured safe passage. And it's where you will find some of Pakistan's best eating.
Sydney may have groovy Argentinean grills and grand art deco steak houses, as I discovered on my recent visit, but Karachi can't be beat when it comes to its road-side offerings. Let's call it our version of dude food. There are plenty of restaurants serving fussed-up tikkas and paltry mimics of home-style curries, but to eat well in Karachi you have to head to the streets.
Bun kebab, the jazzed-up Pakistani version of the burger, is the stuff from which food dreams are made: minced meat (most likely mutton) is spiced with black cumin and red chillies, and comes with a fried egg, onions, a coriander and mint chutney spiked with green chillies, and sometimes lentils, all served between charred buns. If red meat isn't to your liking, you can opt for the vegetarian version, the aloo bun kebab (made of potato, and without the egg), or perhaps a paratha chicken roll. Chicken smeared in ginger, garlic paste, turmeric and mustard is necklaced with pungent white onions and then rolled into an oily and deliciously chewy paratha. It's impossible to eat just one: order three. At more upscale establishments, these rolls come with modern affectations such as melted cheese, Thai green curry and aïoli. And consider yourself warned: there is a divide between bun kebab and chicken roll aficionados. Only the greedy claim to be both.
Not so hungry? Try the roasted corn, doused with lime juice and red chillies, sold on the cob or in little serving dishes fashioned out of old newspapers. Or perhaps pakoras, dipped into a sweet runny ketchup. These bite-sized vegetables fried in a batter of chickpea flour, coriander seeds, salt, coriander and red chillies are a favourite during the holy month of Ramadan. You can choose potato, okra, onion, spinach… just about anything can be made into a pakora.
Crunchy round golgappas (or pani puris) stuffed with potatoes and chickpeas and floating in liquid flavoured with cumin, black pepper, red chilli powder and tamarind are another city favourite. Karachi's golgappas are legendary.
If you've a sweet tooth, avoid the ghee- and sugar-laden sweets - trust me, most South Asians can't stomach them either, unless obliged to eat them at weddings and ceremonial functions - and satisfy the need for pudding discerningly.
The pick of the bunch is jalebi, curly fermented knots made from semolina flour and curd, deep-fried until they are golden, then dipped in a sugar and saffron syrup (sometimes rosewater or cardamom are added to the mix). Falsa, a fruit not unlike the blackberry, is great with mango in shakes and juices. And gola gundas (ice slushies), with or without condensed milk, are the perfect summer cooler.
So, what are you waiting for? Make Karachi your next food destination. I'll see you there - we'll do lunch.