Namak Mandi: age-old choice of the discerning carnivore
Inside the walled city, centuries-old Peshawar is still preserving at least some of its traditions. But contemporary realities have changed much about the area too. Ashraf Road, Khyber Bazaar, Qissa Khwani Bazaar and Namak Mandi remain a constant as attractions for traders and enthusiasts of traditional cuisine. When an outsider enters the walled city, the scene that they see and the crowds they walk amongst are not too different from those of decades ago. Perhaps the neighing of horses might have been replaced by rickshaws horns, of course. Inside the shops, traditional mud and copper pots for sale are joined by electronic devices at the historical Qissa Khwani Bazaar – whose very name evokes the image of traditional storytellers plying their fascinating trade.
Amidst all the hustle and bustle, defying the logic of change and continuity, the aroma of Namak Mandi Food Street remains unchanged. No upheavals in the politics of the Subcontinent and no transformation in society have had an impact on its legendary karahi.
Entire legs of lamb and chickens hang outside restaurants on both sides of Namak Mandi, enticing voracious customers.
Salman Ahmad, 31, a businessman from Islamabad, makes regular visits to Peshawar’s famous food market along with his family members. He says that this cuisine pilgrimage is done at least once a month and adds: “I have traveled a lot, inside the country and abroad – but never tasted such delicious food elsewhere.”
How did a place famed for its mutton karahi get the name Namak Mandi (Salt Market)? It would appear that formerly it was known for the salt trade and later it became popular as a fruit mandi (market)! Nor is Namak Mandi famed only for its rich cuisine. Qehwa stalls, medicines, Peshawari chappal (footwear) and shops dealing in gems – these are just some of the prevalent trades there.
Raees Khan, owner of the Shinwari Tikka House, is of the view that “Mutton karahi never quite lost its charm.” It would seem that the charm works elsewhere too: “Now, besides Namak Mandi, we have our own shop on University Road too” In pointing this out, he refers already to a challenge that the Mandi will face in the near future. “Now the new people in this business have established their shops on University and Ring roads where there are much larger car parking facilities. Besides, as the security situation improves and multinational fast food outlets emerge in the town, it would be a real test for traditional cooks to keep the old customers!”
Prices are a major issue too, in an age when even the most basic food items are costly.
Nasir Khan, owner of Charsi Tikka Wala, explains the high price: “The increasing price of mutton is affecting our business. Common people can’t afford food here now as easily as they once could.”
Khan claims that he runs the oldest Charsi Tikka establishment, although there are a few other similarly named establishments which make the same claim. This Charsi Tikka restaurant may perhaps be distinguished by the fact that dozens of celebrities are known to have visited it. There are more than two dozen tikka restaurants in the streets and every one offers the best quality of mutton. Competition is quite tough and therefore everyone tries to provide the best quality. And good food here comes at the high price of Rs. 800 per kg.
In Namak Mandi, karahi and barbecued meats are a favourite amongst meat enthusiasts.
“I was not expecting that Afghan fast food would flourish so fast here”
Syed Agha admits
Raees Khan says: “We are in a hard race here and therefore we can’t imagine even the slightest substandard item. No one is ready to lose their customers and everyone in the market will welcome other customers, so we are extremely conscious about our business reputation. Now in Namak Mandi most of the restaurant owners use the stamped mutton approved by the Food Department on a daily basis. Such quality control assurance is sure to assuage the common doubts in urban Pakistan about the provenance of meat served. And it draws carnivores from across the country!
Amongst them is a family from Mardan, which includes teacher Shehla Aziz. Her advice on the best timing to visit Namak Mandi is after sunset – when the place lights up and the aroma starts working its magic in the cleaner night air.
Chana Mewa Chawal – giving other pulao dishes a run for their money
Amongst many other Peshawari signature dishes, Channa Mewa Chawal is currently leading the list of items. Many in Pakistan make the mistake of assuming Kabuli pulao to be indigenous to Peshawar, but that is not true. For the record, while we’re at it, lamb tikka and karahi are from the Khyber Agency while Chapli kebab is from Peshawar and Mardan.
But Chana Mewa Chawal is surely the safest bet for anyone planning a feast in Peshawar, be it a wedding or any other occasion. The cooking methods have been perfected over the years. Chefs like Malang Sher enjoy celebrity status and there are long waitlists for their services during the ‘wedding season’ each year.
This dish is not cooked with basmati, as the rice is considered too delicate for it. Instead the “saila” variety is used, which tends to be sturdier than basmati. Aged saila and fine beef tenderloin are the two essential elements of a good Channa Mewa Chawal.
Now Channa Mewa Chawal is available in Peshawar city on most major streets. Beside Peshawar, in Mardan, inside the workshops and bus stands there are dozens of deygs (large cooking pots) on pushcarts and now even sophisticated shops – all selling the dish.
Malang Sher, the veteran cook, is over 60. He is in the Channa Mewa Chawal cooking business since decades. The most popular rice cook in town, he says: “My great-grandfather was in this business and I have learned this art from my father”. In Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP), Channa Mewa Chawal is now something of a compulsory dish at every party. From remote areas to the heart of urban Peshawar and other cities, festivities are considered incomplete without Channa Mewa Chawal. Though he may be doing well for himself, the art of the specialist cook is generally on the decline here due to the trend of shadi (wedding) halls handling all the affairs of cuisine for their customers.
Malang Sher is proud of his family’s work throughout Pakistan – a name that it took great effort to make. “One deyg consisting of 15 kg of rice, 15 kg of beef, 2 kg of mewa and 5 kg channa costs Rs. 12,500.” The expert cook calculates with his finger tips.
He reveals that your choice of vessel can be critical here. “In the recent past, steel deygs became available in the market. These are cheap but they simply cannot give the desired taste to the rice. We are using the expensive copper deyg instead.”
His son Naeem Khan studied commerce. Having graduated, now he helps his aged father in business affairs. He criticises the government’s “one dish” policy for weddings and insists: “Instead of banning food items, the administration must ban the lavish tent, Shadi hall, cars and stage decorations – and the lavish parties if they want to help people control their expenditure at weddings!”
Naeem adds: “We don’t use gas. We cook the rice on a wood fire but still we pay commercial rates.”
Afghani Burger – where East meets West
After the Soviet incursion, millions of Afghan refugees migrated to the nearest cities and towns of Pakistan along the long, famously porous Afghan-Pakistani border.
Peshawar was amongst the most convenient cities for the refugees to reside and establish their businesses – especially in the earlier days of the Afghan war. In some areas, Afghan refugees soon outnumbered the local Pakhtuns. Among other places, Board Bazaar got the name of Chota Kabul (Little Kabul), because it was close to one of the refugee camps near Hayat Abad. Later the camp was destroyed by the authorities. But back in the day, in the bazaar the businessmen and customers were primarily Afghans. They brought with them tastes which attracted Pakistani customers too. Some of the Afghan food items are now equally famous on both sides of the Durand Line. Kabuli Pulao is just one amongst these.
The famed “Afghani Burger” is another.
A cook is busy preparing fries at Afghani Fast Food House, which will be rolled into the bread. While it may remind you of a shawarma, locals prefer to call the dish Afghani Burger. In Board Bazaar, Syed Agha has established his Afghani Burger business after his migration. During these three decades Agha has gained innumerable customers from every nook of the city. He earns a good income and enjoys his life being a refugee in Pakistan: “I was young when I came to this land. I still remember it was tough and hard at the beginning”, Syed recalls. But now I have 12 employees in this fast food house, he grins.
Syed Agha starts his day at 10 am and ends late in the night. He is a master at the art of the Afghani Burger and the Mantu (Afghan dumplings). “I was not expecting that Afghan fast food would flourish so fast in this city” Syed Agha admits. A burger takes some 10 minutes, while Mantu takes a bit more time.
Wajid Khan is student at Islamia College. He comes with his friends once a week to Syed Agha’s shop for Afghani burger. “It gives the impression of a complete meal!” Wajid explains why he loves it.
Syed Agha, at least, is satisfied with life in exile. “Pakistan and Pakistanis have given us great respect!” he says.
The definitive ingredients, according to him, would be fries, boiled egg, salad vegetables and sausages – all of which are rolled into a naan especially prepared for the purpose. The naan is prepared from fine flour and is much thinner than normal unleavened bread. Chat masala, black pepper and salt are sprinkled over it and then it is rolled up in a newspaper wrapper. The burger is served with tomato chutney, which adds more flavour to an already irresistible treat.
Chapli Kabab: ever succulent, ever relevant
Rambeel Khan Chapli kebab at Taru Jabba near Peshawar city is unofficially the most popular kebab hotel in town. According to the owner, he slaughters a buffalo on a daily basis – this should give you some idea of the scale of the demand for these kebabs and the freshness of the meat used. Demand for his kebabs is not only widespread in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province but also in the Gulf countries. Peshawar city boasts dozens of fine kebab hotels but Rambeel Khan has achieved fame and recognition like few others. Rambeel Khan comes from a long line of kebab entrepreneurs: “We were in this business when local people from the outskirts [of Peshawar] and as far away as Nowshera would come in horse-drawn tonga carts!” He adds that at that time there would be merely a few buses on the Grand Trunk Road towards Rawalpindi and Mardan.
Naveed Gul, 53, is a businessman who comes with family and friends twice a month. “I used to come here even on a bicycle with my father for this delicious kebab” Gul remembers fondly. “The taste here is the same as it was a few decades ago!” he assures us.
Rowail Khan, son of Rambeel, is now actively looking business affairs. “We use pure qeema (minced meat), the freshest tomato, the most flavourful onions and other masalajaat (spices).” He emphasises that in it is the quality and sourcing of ingredients that gives them their obvious commercial edge over other kebab establishments.
Besides Taru Jabba near Peshawar, there are some fantastic and old kebab hotels in Mardan, too. Some of those worth visiting would be Shankar Kebab, Shahbaz Garha, Rashakai, Takht Bhai and Sultan Hotel at College Chowk.
Millions of people migrated from east to west and vice versa on the basis of their faith, and about one million died in the frenzied violence surrounding Partition in 1947. One side effect of this disastrous migration of human history was the arrival of eastern Indian cuisine influences into the western parts of the historical Indian Subcontinent – which became Pakistan.
After Partition, like so many other Indian Muslims, Ahmar Ali Khan, resident of Uttar Pradesh (UP) from the city of Badayun left his motherland along with his family for the newly established Muslim state of Pakistan. Ahmar Ali Khan accomplished the long, terrible and dangerous journey from his native town Badayun to Mardan, via the Wagah border.
“When my father and uncle learned about the expected new Muslim country, our elders made up their minds for a long migration,” Mr. Mehmood Ali Khan, son of Ahmar Ali Khan, recalls. “We have many relatives in UP and sometimes visit them even now. In Badayun, I learned the art of this delicious sweet [pera] from an experienced family with a legacy of some 186 years. Two brothers amongst the newcomers from India arrived in Pakistan and set up shop in D. I. Khan – and at the same time, Ibn e Ali Khan and Mehmood Ali Khan started the pera business in Mardan. That would be back in 1950.”
One of the employees tells me about the scale of the operation here today:
“We sell up to 80 kg of pera on a daily basis the price per kilogram is 330 rupees. From here, our product goes to all those countries where Pakistanis live – but a large amount of the sweet goes also to Afghanistan, the Gulf and Central Asian states, Europe, USA and India. We use khoya, sugar and homemade sweet masala.” He claims that this masala is precisely what sets their pera apart from others.
Rambeel Khan comes from a long line of kebab entrepreneurs
“During this long period of 60 years or so in Pakistan, we have provided skills to dozens of locals, but they paid us back by starting their own businesses using our trademark name!” Mehmood complains. In fact, he is currently pursuing a case in the district court against such violations. But the introducers of pera into the region are none the wiser as to when their stance would be vindicated.
Badayuni Pera House is located on Bank Road in Mardan. These days many other copycat shops have surrounded the old one. A customer Ali Khan, 42, confirms this. Khan is engineer in Dubai and is quite clear that this is the original shop for Badayuni Pera.
“My father was a landowner in Badayun and we learned this art of making pera for fun in our birthplace. It has supported us tremendously in a very tough time. Now after six decades in this business, people all over the world know and respect our business.” Mehmood Ali Khan smiles.
Abdur Rauf Yousafzai reports for
The Friday Times from FATA and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and tweets at @raufabdur