Monday, May 20, 2024
News, analysis and commentary by UBC Journalism students


Breaking Naan: Pakistani food in Vancouver

Step through the doors of these Pakistani restaurants and you’re whisked into Karachi’s vibrant disorder.

By Bismah Mughal , in City , on April 29, 2024

 

Vancouver’s culinary scene is like a stage where cuisines from around the world compete for the spotlight. Restaurants with foods from Japan, India, Greece, Italy, Vietnam and Mexico often take centre stage.

Pakistani cuisine seems to hold a more discreet spot. And no, let’s not lump food from Pakistan together with food from India. Pakistani food is distinct in history, presentation and ingredients. The two may be similar, but they are definitely not interchangeable.  

I thought, when I challenged myself to try every Pakistani restaurant in Vancouver, that I would have a tough time making the rounds. Then I discovered there are only two. 

Both offer diners a chance to step through their front doors and and into Karachi’s vibrant disorder.  It’s the comfort you get when strangers sitting at the table next to you are speaking the same dialect and eating nihari the way only a true Karachiite can: not with a fork but a tear of piping hot naan, dipped into the simmering rich stew, spruced up with a squeeze of lemon, slivers of ginger and an electric bite of green chilies.

These two establishments, though small and imperfect, let your heart visit Pakistan. It is in the way the manager greets guests and fetches you a cup of “truck driver’s chai’” — a bold, bracing version of tea created to fuel drivers through the night on long journeys across the country. This is not your regular cup of chai. For me, this is a cup that takes me home.

Doodh Patti — a type of milk tea, originating from the Indian subcontinent. Photo: Bismah Mughal

That is the focus for these  humble eateries. They serve up rich combinations of flavours that go beyond taste and create a sense of belonging. They’re not just serving food: they’re doling out portions of solace or “sukoori” as we say in Urdu. It’s a gesture that says, “I see you; I know your story.”

Right now, as the world seems more divided than ever, this is my way of being together. And it’s in these little narratives wrapped up in hidden street corners that we find comfort with each other.

Stepping into Dewan-e-Khass on Fraser Street in east-side Vancouver, I sought out the owner, Siraj Ahmed Khan, curious to know if he knew about the profound cultural impact his restaurant has on Vancouver’s tight-knit Pakistani community — particularly the international students carving out a home away from home.

“Food is a way of connecting with your roots and representing your culture. I am Pashtun so I started making chicken karahi, which originates from Peshawar, here in Vancouver. And everybody loved it. It reminded them of the food they ate back home. You know, the Shinwari Karahi you get at Gulistan-e-Johar in Karachi? Yes, I introduced that here,” he said.

Pakoras, crispy fritters, sizzle as they’re deep-fried in a wok, part of the iftar preparations at Karakoram’s kitchen. Photo: Bismah Mughal

“I haven’t gone back to Pakistan in years, so in a way, this restaurant is also my home and my family here. Not just with my staff, but also my customers. So many people come in here so often that they end up reminding me of home, just the way this restaurant reminds them of home,.”

Those smells and tastes offer the kind of reminder that Pareesa Channa welcomes. A student at UBC, and originally from Hyderabad, Pakistan, she came to Dewan-e-Khass for their famous pakoras, which I crave every rainy evening with a cup of steaming hot doodh patti chai.

“Honestly, I was just saying that I am getting Qasimabad vibes from this place.” For context — Qasimabad is a neighbourhood in Hyderabad. A bustling commercial street with eateries side to side from end to end. 

Pareesa Channa, a customer at Dewan-e-Khass Restaurant, breaks her fast with mutton haleem and piping hot naan. Photo: Bismah Mughal

“I love this place. It’s my first time coming here but the food and the familiarity of the atmosphere, with the Bollywood songs blaring in the background and the chaos, and even the interior of the place — it is all too similar to what we had back home and I didn’t think I’d be able to find this in Vancouver,” she said.

Eshal Chishty and her friends looked like they were having too much fun at their table.

“Dewan-e-Khass uncle makes the best chai. It tastes exactly like the chai my nani [grandmother] makes,” she said.

“This place has been such a great hangout spot for all of us this year. The food always reminds me of home and I truly haven’t had better pakoras anywhere else in Vancouver. I think it has become our regular after-party spot. Very halal after-parties, of course,” said Chishty. 

Dewan-e-Khass’ only competitor in the city, Karakoram, shares similar values for their customer base. Whether it’s Eid, a celebratory dinner after finals or just a craving for comfort food late at night, Karakoram — not far away from Dewan-e-Khass on Victoria Drive — is usually the place to go.

“I am really bad at cooking. And nihari is a very technical dish that is very hard to make and also hard to find in Canada in general. But Karakoram has been a saving grace for me. Nobody does nihari and Lahori achari karahi better than these guys. It instantly takes me back to Zahid’s nihari in Karachi, and that is saying something,” said Hajra Ojha, who was enjoying her dinner peacefully at Karakoram.

“I have definitely started seeing food as more than just a means of sustenance since I moved to Canada. It for sure holds more meaning. When we’re back home, we take things for granted. But only when those everyday things get taken away from you, do you realize that even the littlest things like the smell of chai or the taste of naan, hold so much meaning to you,” she said.

Qasim Mehmood, the man running Karakoram, was hard to get a quiet time with. Even with workers under him, he kept springing in and out of the kitchen like a burnt-out desi mom at every dinner party. He finally sat down after the iftar buffet rush and offered me a cup of chai. The caffeine-addict in me couldn’t resist. 

Karakoram Restaurant on Victoria Drive in Vancouver. Photo: Bismah Mughal

“I have been in the restaurant industry for the past 15 years. First in Pakistan, and then in the U.K. When I moved to Vancouver some 10 years ago, there were no Pakistani restaurants here. This was a huge gap that I knew I had to fill,” he said.

“I started with Dewan-e-Khass in 2017 and then we parted ways,” he said.

My maybe-scandal-loving neurons were in overdrive. 

‘Give us the gossip!’, I almost demanded. But fortunately, the sensible part of my brain grabbed the reins, keeping my inner drama queen in check.

 “Part of Karakoram’s popularity is that I have always focused on keeping the flavours as authentic as possible. If people want toned-down versions of desi food, they can find it in any street corner here in Vancouver. But I make sure our taste remains true to the roots,” he said.

“We source all our ingredients from Pakistan, except for the fresh produce. All the spices are made from scratch here with ingredients that I get from home.”

Unlike at Dewan-e-Khass, I saw a number of people from outside of the Pakistani community dining here at Karakoram. I asked him if he tweaks his dishes a bit to fit the taste buds of non-desi customers and attract a wider and more diverse clientele.

Ramadan buffet at Karakoram Restaurant. Photo: Bismah Mughal

“We do ask about their spice tolerance level and adjust accordingly, but that is about it. My focus is on staying authentic in our taste and not changing it completely, otherwise my ancestors would be rolling in their graves, saying “Ya Khuda! [Oh God!] What have you done to our food!”

As the scents of cumin and cardamom mingled with the Pacific breeze, I walked out that night with my stomach and heart both full. Or was that heartburn from the super creamy white karahi I devoured? No — can’t be. That warmth was surely the glow of sentiments. 

Vancouver’s immigrant-owned Pakistani eateries have become a cherished staple, beloved for their rich, aromatic dishes.

Yet these culinary havens find themselves at a crossroads, striving to preserve the essence of their country’s flavours in a scene largely tailored to Western tastes.

It’s a careful juggling act — on one side, there’s the pull of tradition, tugging at the heartstrings of a diaspora hungry for the tastes of home; on the other, the push to innovate and entice a broader audience whose palates may lean towards the familiar. These kitchens are on a mission to maintain authenticity while charming new patrons into embarking on a flavourful journey of discovery.

Pakoras, curry, lassi and fruits for iftar served at Dewan-e-Khass. Photo: Bismah Mughal

 Yet it is in this dance between tradition and adaptation that these eateries carve out their niche, becoming not just restaurants but social hubs. 

Here over steaming plates of spicy biryani and cups of piping hot chai, connections are made and communities are strengthened. These spaces act as cultural crossroads, where the hum of Urdu mingles with English, where stories from the streets of Lahore are traded as readily as recipes. And where, for a few precious moments, Vancouver feels only a heartbeat away from home.

And while neither restaurants hit the high notes of my mother’s chicken biryani, there is a reason why every Pakistani you will meet, including myself, can’t stay away from them.