Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Two Years In Pakistan

Pakistani culture is similar to its food, it can be really good, and sometimes it can be very difficult.  While I'm sure locals get over the difficult parts, as a foreigner that can be much more challenging.  If you're even somewhat  adventurous, the challenging can be at the very least educational. The part that shocked me most when moving to this country was the amount of good that there is, both in the people and the food.  People wise there is a lot of good, some of the most friendly people you'll ever meet, people who want to make you happy, and many who are willing to give the little that they have just to be a good person.

Food wise the challenges mostly came from the poverty issues. Health and cleanliness are a big issue in Pakistan.  There are really two levels of this when it comes to the food, one is that there are certain bacteria that locals can handle, but foreigners cannot, this lead to some problems particularly early on.  The second comes from other contaminants that even the  locals can not handle.  The contaminants are often found in the tap water, and this makes life very challenging. While this is a problem that cannot be overlooked, if you did you'd be in for a bad night of stomach upset, you also can't overlook how great some of the food is as well.

You can't start a conversation about Pakistani food without India.  In the 1960s Pakistan was part of India, while the religion may have been different, the food has many similarities.  Spicy is the order of  the day, and you'll have a hard time finding anything that isn't spicy, even the basic fast food places have menu items that would shock most westerners.  There is also a great range in spices used, it's not just about heat, but it's also about the flavours behind the heat.  The biggest differences you'll find  in the food between Pakistan and India is the meat.  Beef being illegal in many parts of India, is a huge part of the Pakistani diet.  Pork, while not illegal in India is not common, in Pakistan pork is illegal. This certainly makes for different choices when it comes to meals.

Subtlety there are a few differences between the two cuisines.  I found that Pakistani food tends to blend more spices together in each dish.  It's much harder to take apart a Pakistani dish and figure out what flavours are mixed in.  In Indian food the flavours are simpler, and maybe a little bit cleaner, with one or two spices leading each dish.

One of the great debates in local cuisine between India and Pakistan is who makes the best naan bread. Many people prefer the lighter Indian naan bread, but personally I really liked the thick heavy naan bread from Pakistan.  Indian naan is more flexible, and would then be easier to pick up food, but the heartiness of Pakistani naan made it a meal into itself. Pakistani naan also often had highlights, as well.  In Pakistan you can find naan stuffed with so many fillings, spicy or sweet.

As for candies and confectionery, Pakistan was a fascinating place.  In the packaged candy department there are a few locally made treats.  Most of these are either hard candies or gummies, and two of the most predominant flavours are Imli (a sweet red bean) or hot peppers.  The most popular packaged treats in Pakistan are not Pakistani at all.  Most of the chocolate bar market seemed to be British, this is likely because of the British influence from occupying this area for so long.  Dairy Milk and other British brands can be found everywhere.

Locally made treats where very different indeed.  Most treats came in the form of barfi and jalebi. As unappealing as it sounds to North American ears, barfi is a really great sweet treat, often made of milk.  It's a smooth creamy and sweet treat that takes on many forms.  Jalebi is a common sweet treat found in Pakistan that looks like a poorly made pretzel, but is in fact a sweet deep fried treat.  It's my favorite of all the treats I found in Pakistan, and something I hope to learn how to make myself.  As with the food, many of these treats can also be found in India, and there is always great debate as to where they have originated.

I can't lie, I had some trouble with the food in Pakistan. Many a night I found myself in the bathroom lying on the floor wondering what could have possibly made me this sick.  It's not a place for those that aren't adventurous (I'm still not sure how I survived).  The thing is, when it works, it works really well.  There's so much more to Pakistani cooking than just the food. I can't tell you how many times I enjoyed the environment, and people around me when I was eating. I'll never forget eating on New Food Street in Lahore, up on the rooftop of Andas restaurant looking down at a giant mosque with good people all around me.

Before I go, I can't forget the mangos... They're like nothing I've ever eaten before.


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