Wednesday, October 11, 2006

You Are Invited To Gowalmandi - Watching, Listening, Thinking, and Eating in Lahore’s Legendary Food Street

By Mr. S A J Shirazi. He lives in Lahore, Pakistan.

Gowalmandi Food and Heritage Street has become an enriching experience in Lahore. It is a wonder what a few million rupees spent on the renovation of a built heritage, with balconies and angular projections lining the street, some years ago have done to the ambience of the place.

Lahorites have already (and justifiably) stated comparing it with lanes in Rome, Paris and Athens. Sizzling spicy foods on display in Gowalmandi reminds one of Vasco de Gama’s memorable exclaim as he first set foot on the South Asian soil in the morning of May 21, 1498 - For Christ and spices!

No data regarding the consumption of spices in Gowalmandi Food Street is available but a proprietor of one of the biggest shops in the street said, "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, everyone is lead by aroma of the food laid out in front or cooking 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 elegantly lined with thin upright tiles, though sometime orders may change. I was served Makhan Mutton Karahi when I had ordered chicken leg piece - an incredible achievement in food in this part of the world. I did not mind this deal at all but the large family that had originally ordered the sumptuous dish had to wait longer.

Over the years, the Food Street has become a major tourist attraction in Lahore for natives as well as foreigners. One can always see the foreigners eating, roaming around or standing near a huge black vat, where Peshawri Chappal Kababs are made, and taking photographs.

"In west there is hardly any place where one can see food being cooked. It is so mouth-watering just to watch", said Davis, a 'Khalis Angrez' whom I met in the Food Street. He was in Lahore in connection with a book exhibition. Sikhs from across the Indian border are also seen with that inevitable "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.

On my last visit to the food street, I had enough on my own plate, literally, to deal with but I could not help observing 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 Masala Makkhan, Mutton Karahi and Chicken Tikkas, followed by chilled Kheer served in thoothees.

Once the food was laid, the disciplinarian mother served the helpings, of course the husband being doled out the best and the biggest share (a good old-tradition, regrettably, withering rapidly). The mother did not fail to remind the children to first invoke the name of Allah Almighty, the most merciful and the most beneficent.

However, after counting the pieces in his share, the younger boy, instead of eating, innocently complained, "Mama! Just like home, you are giving me less even in the Food Street”. The mother sternly looked at her food-obsessed son and 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 reminded me of my own mother. What has the place got to do with parenting? Both remains the same, I thought.

Indeed, Gowalmandi Food Street is an experience packed with plentiful dining options and peppered with garnishes of past memories.

Who says that you have to wait for Basant or Food Festival to go there? It has become a destination impossible to ignore, a permanent cultural feature of Lahore.

Read more by Mr. S A J Shirazi at his blog Light Within

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