From Burnes Road to Café Flo: How Karachi changed the way it eats out

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By Sidrah Roghay

KARACHI: What makes a millennial from a middle-class locality in Karachi, say Nazimabad, take an expensive rickshaw ride to an uptown café and buy food that will dig a deep hole in his pocket?

This struggling doctor who ekes out Rs35,000, just enough to meet his monthly expenses, and saves a tad bit more after his wife works as a teacher at an expensive O Level school, is ready to pay Rs300 for a cup of coffee, something his parents would never have thought of doing when he was growing up in Karachi in the 90s.

He belongs to a growing number of millennials who are changing the way Karachi has eaten out for decades.

Cafés that boast of exotic dishes from all over the world—from Parmesan Chicken to Honey flavoured chicken wings, from crème boule to New York Cheesecake, are propping up every other day in the city. Not every eatery is a success. Many close down in the first year of their business.

According to Karachisnob.com, an online directory of the city’s finest eateries, a new wave of café culture was introduced to the city in 2005. Before that there was only Copper Kettle, a cosy place where there were plush sofas to sit instead of chairs, and one could get a variety of soups, shrimps and sandwiches, a novelty in the late 90s. “The food was terrible,” recalls Ahmed, now in his late 30s, “but it became a place where teenagers could just hangout after school.”

It changed its name to the Hobnob Bakery later, and operates a number of outlets across the city, where one can buy actual ‘dark chocolate’ and cheesecakes. This one particular bakery’s journey, which introduced never-heard-of-before desserts like apple pies and carrot cakes to Karachiites, explains how the culture crossed the Clifton bridge—and came to middle class localities like Gulistan-e-Jauhar and Gulshan-e-Iqbal.

It won’t be wrong to say that it was Espresso which introduced coffee to this otherwise tea-drinking city. Visitors who arrived at this chic café at the posh Zamzama market remember they were taken aback by the choices of coffee on the menu. Before Espresso, coffee was Nescafe instant mix. Espresso told people that coffee ranged from Americano to Macchiato—and it could be drunk hot or cold, because yes there was iced coffee too.

Yet another name that redefined fine-dining was Café Flo. Owned by a French woman, the quaint place in Old Clifton nestled amidst tall Banyan trees introduced delicacies like squid and avocado to people who grew up on a diet of tikka masala and greasy parathas.

A meal for two at such a café will easily cross the Rs3000 mark, an exorbitant amount in a country where the per capita income for 2014-15 was $1512 (Rs15840), but visitors feel they are getting value for money.

“What else is there to do in Karachi? We live for food—when we are born our families celebrate with food, when we die greasy Biryani is a must at the funeral,” says Talha Chachar, a marketing professional who says he eats-out at least four times a month.

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A vendor selling fish at Burnes Road – source: Geo.tv

Old businesses hit hard

As these uptown cafés grew in number, restaurants in the old-city were hit hard. For the middle-class children of the 90s, food streets at Burnes Road and Hussainabad were weekend family hang-outs.

Not anymore. The class lines have been drawn. Now these places are frequented by Abaya clad women and Ghutka-chewing men engaged in blue-collar work.

Saturday nights at Burnes Road, a food street smack in the middle of Saddar, is any traffic warden’s nightmare. Cars, pedestrians, dogs, and vendors, all fight for space here. One has to watch their step: open sewers and manholes might get you. This is where one can get authentic Karachi food: Waheed’s fry Kebab, Delhi Rabri, and Anwar’s Mutton Karahi.

But as families stopped coming here for eating out the street has become more of a domain exclusively for men, with restaurants hosting small enclosed areas they call ‘family halls’ for women wanting to visit.

Mohsin Fallah, whose family has been running Café Mubarak, an Iranian restaurant in Saddar for the last 50 years, sounds pessimistic. His business has been badly hit by the changing food-scape of Karachi.

“Eating-out habits of people have changed,” he said. “People prefer to take a long drive and eat barbeque for twice the price at Do Darya [where a number of high-end restaurants overlooking the sea are situated].”

His restaurant situated near Pakistan’s top business school, the Institute of Business Administration, is fading away with the floor covered in a layer of dust and white paint from the wall chipping away. He too has been forced to expand his menu from the traditional Chulu Kebab and Pulao to the more popular fast food that includes local versions of cheeseburgers and club sandwiches.

No longer part of the hip Karachi culture, Iranian restaurants were once a hub of literary get-togethers where several movements of the 1960s were planned. Situated at street corners, these Iranian restaurants claim that they were the ones who introduced innovations in the eat-out culture such as waiters wearing uniforms and tablecloths.

With them were a number of Malbari restaurants which were famous for their tea, topped with a dollop of thick cream, says Akhtar Balouch, a blogger and journalist who has written extensively on the city under the pseudonym Kiranchi Wala.

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Cafe Flo, an uptown eatery which also serves French cuisine – Picture source: Twitter

Cultural globalization

Perhaps the fading culture of the city accounts to a phenomenon called cultural globalization where internet, social media, and travel promotes shared ideas and lifestyle

“So that a young lady in her 20s will have more in common with a person her age in New York, than she will have with her parents,” says Mohsin Ihsan, co-founder Cosmopolitan, a café in Karachi.

It is cultural globalization that no longer leaves a youngster from Karachi in cultural shock when he visits New York. In fact, even if he has never stepped out of Pakistan, he would want to try hot dogs and waffles, American street food, pictures of which he has seen on his Instagram feed and the rich dose of Hollywood he has grown on.

Internet users in the country have shown a steady increase. Data from World Bank indicates that, in 2015, 18.9 percent of the total population in Pakistan had access to internet, a 4.1 percent increase compared to internet users in the previous year. Millennials (born between the 80s to early 2000s) are bombarded with information from around the world through social media.

“The only connection to American culture we had when we were young were Archie comics,” says Hasan Zaidi, a journalist and culture critic.

Or does this mushroom growth of cafés in the city signify a deeper problem? Is this the sign of a generation which is becoming more and more consumeristic?

Balouch agrees. “There is a dearth of ideas and discussions. And so millennials fill that vacuum by buying stuff, consuming more and more,” he says.

Zaidi begs to differ. “Consumerism was always around. What we see today is a rising middle class—with both partners working. So people are left with a greater disposable income. When this happens, you move away from spending on only necessities to spending on entertainment, which also comes in the shape of eating out at these chic cafés.”

Talat Aslam, senior editor The News and a foodie, says the changing food scene is giving this entertainment-starved city reason to be happy.

“So in the 80s, going out was an occasion where one would put on a dinner jacket, now it has just become a casual weekend habit.”

He observes that, in a lot of these cafés, one can see women hanging out with a group of other women or just alone—something that was not a norm in the city before.

Karachi has changed the way it eats out, not necessarily for the good or bad, but simply changed, like most organic, cosmopolitan societies—it has borrowed, picked, and chosen from cultures it likes. A case in point is how Dhabbas have made a comeback in the food culture of the city, by tweaking its parathas to include cheese and Nutela flavours, and making their sitting areas women-inclusive places.

“One can never stand still in business, you have to stay relevant to your customers,” says Aized Suharwardi, co-founder Chai Wala, one such Dhaba.

– Originally published here

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Book Review: The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

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I first read about the book in a New York Times article where the outgoing US President Barack Obama, a voracious reader, mentioned that he had included the Golden Notebook in a Kindle collection he had presented to his teenage daughter Malia.

Interestingly, weeks later I found it lying in my husband’s bookshelf. He recommended it, adding that it was an important feminist voice in contemporary literature. The author Doris Lessing won a Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007 for her work, which included the Golden Notebook.

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The book is over 500 pages long, and looks into the mind of a writer, who keeps her thoughts, writings, diary, and bits of newspaper clippings in four different notebooks.

It is difficult to keep track, because it is not written in chronological order, and you drift from one notebook to the other, but as you read on the dots connect. The protagonist Anna Wulf is a novelist, single-mother, communist, and a feminist.

She asks questions that many women can relate to.

“Being so young, twenty three or twenty four I suffered like so many ‘emancipated girls’ from a terror of being trapped and tamed by domesticity.”

A character in Anna’s novel Ella, which heavily borrows from her own life and experiences, falls in love with a married man, who finds her too career oriented, and leaves one fine day for Nigeria, on a work-trip. She never hears back from him. Years later she finds out he is in town visiting, and she waits for him every day at her window, the front lights of the porch switched on, hoping that he walks in. She fails to put words to the emotions— unsure if she can call it love.

“To show a woman loving a man one should show her cooking a meal for him or opening a bottle of wine for the meal, while she waits for his ring at the door. Or waking in the morning before he does to see his face change before the calm of sleep into a smile of welcome.”

“I ought to be like a man, caring more for my work than for people; I ought to put my work first, and take men as they come or find an ordinary comfortable man for bread and butter reasons—but I won’t do it, I can’t be like that…”

I have had these thoughts. Would it have been easier if I had found an ordinary man for bread and butter reasons? But no, I can’t be like that.

As the book concludes the protagonist Anna realizes that the main character of the novel Ella is in fact her own embodiment. “I, Anna, see Ella. Who is of course, Anna.”

The final chapter in the book called the Golden Notebook, details how Anna finds freedom, comes to term with her life, finds peace, and discards all four of her notebooks.