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



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, 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.


A vendor selling fish at Burnes Road – source:

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.

cafe flo1

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

A harrowing trail to Europe



What makes a man leave a comfortable job, a loving wife and two children to embark on a treacherous journey to Europe as an illegal migrant — packed in a container, aboard a dinghy boat or squeezed in a car trunk? A heartrending first-hand account…

Faraz* was an employee at a textile factory in Karachi drawing Rs40,000 a month. Europe for him was a distant dream — a place with clean roads, rich people and no hardships, a heaven on earth.

The idea of traveling illegally to Europe was first introduced to him by Ali, a friend at work. “The stakes are high; there is no guarantee that we will make it alive but it’s worth a shot,” Ali had told him. Faraz agreed. Both of them resigned from their jobs in November last year.

As the European Union (EU) opened its doors for migrants from Syria and Iraq fleeing ISIS, thousands from developing countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Iran are also said to have flooded Europe. Most of these migrants in search for greener pastures were denied entry at the Greece-Macedonia border to be told that only conflict-hit migrants were welcome in the EU.

Protests emerging at this border were reported world-wide — mostly because of their uniqueness, which included sewing their lips together and stripping down all through December 2015.

Faraz, a father of two young children, recalls meeting an agent in Karachi North who briefed him about the journey. They were to travel to Gwadar from Karachi, board a boat to Iran, ride a bus to Turkey, get on a boat to reach Greece. And Europe thereafter was all his to explore.

Faraz paid the agent Rs100,000. He asked him to meet his mother, and tell her that he would be okay. Faraz knew better but wanted his mother to stay satisfied.

The agent had been honest, he says. “There are only 40 per cent chances you will make the journey alive. People die in the process.”

Whether it was the naivety of a 29-year-old young man or his spirit of adventure or the raw appeal of a glittering Europe he doesn’t know but Faraz agreed to take the risk.

On a cold December night, Faraz packed a few clothes, some dry fruit and cash in a small backpack. That was all he thought he would need to make “the journey of his life”. He was placed on a Datsun pickup truck which was to take him to Gwadar. “That truck could accommodate 12 passengers. We were 30 grownup men packed at the back”. Faraz made the most uncomfortable eight-hour journey of his life that night — or so he thought then. “My knees were held to my chest, my elbows fixed to my sides”.

Once at Gwadar, the group rested at a shack by the sea. They were to make another journey to Iran — this time by the sea. “At about 1am, an agent woke us up. We were packed inside a locally manufactured motor boat — an engine attached to a small wooden boat. The boat could hold ten people at a time. We were no less than 50”.

The passengers had to stay very quiet or else the border security would hear them. They couldn’t move because even a slight movement would make the boat lose its balance. “The sea is a terrible place. Our small boat rocked with the waves. It would go up as high as a three storey building — and then come crashing down”.

Some of the passengers started throwing up. Others screamed. An agent who could only speak Farsi told them to shut up. Two of the passengers began screaming for help. “The agent threw them off the boat into the sea”.

There was silence in the boat as the passengers struggled to register the fact that two of them had just perished in the sea. The boat reached Juhi, a small village by the sea in Khuzestan Province of Iran. “We were given stale bread to eat and some yogurt, and asked to wait for a car that would pick us up.”

The car came to pick them at 12.30am. They were taken to Bander Abbas, Iran’s busiest port city, and were left at a place that Faraz described as “a jungle”. They waited for three days in the open. There was nothing to eat, and Faraz survived on the nuts he had packed in his bag. They relieved themselves in the bushes — and “some even drank their own urine for there was no water”.

“The mosquitoes there were as big as houseflies. There were snakes. One of our companions got bitten by a snake. Foam started coming out of his mouth and he died instantly,” recalls Faraz. “Gradually we realised we had become animals. We hid our food. We fought for water”.

Three nights later, a man came to pick them up. They were huddled in the trunk of a Corolla 2D. “We were made to stand in a prostrated position, like you do during prayers, and that is how I covered the eight-hour journey to Tehran”.

Faraz remembers he couldn’t breathe or move. There were four or five people packed in the car — like suitcases, and he remembered they all stank after days of travel. He remembers travelling from one city to the other in Iran, and seeing “lots and lots of mountains”.

Somewhere in the middle he almost got shot to death.

“After we left Bandar Abbas, we reached a forest. We had to cross a mountain in the night, in the one hour that the Border Security Force changed shifts. There were wild bushes on one side, and date orchards on the other.

“Suddenly a search light shone on us. And then there was gunfire. I ran towards the date trees. Something hit me but I didn’t stop. I thought a bullet had hit my back. I ran for over an hour. And I prayed. I prayed to God not to let me die there, not in the cold, in a foreign country.”

When he stopped to rest, and took off his backpack, he saw that a bullet had pierced through it. The backpack was in pieces, but Faraz remained unscathed.

“There were 20 of us, all dispersed. We were lost in the wilderness in a foreign country,” he recalls.

Faraz spent another night in the open. And then an Iranian man he did not recognise came to fetch him. He took him to an agent and they made it to Tehran.

The next stop was Maku, an Iranian city situated 22 kilometres away from the Turkish border. From Maku, packed in a car, Faraz and his other companions left for Turkey in a fleet. Faraz was in a Sedan car; Ali, his friend from Karachi, was in a truck.

The truck cleared the border security check. But the Sedan was stopped. The security force asked Faraz to step out. They gave him a body check, and found a knife in his sock which he had kept for safety. Faraz was in trouble and so were all the people in the car. They were deported to Iran.

Faraz then remembered being transferred to several jails in Iran: Maku, Tehran, Zahidan, and then he finally crossed over into Quetta, where he took a bus back to Karachi.

Faraz came home, tired, shaken, questioning his existence. “If only I could have crossed Turkey, I would have been in Europe”.

He had home-cooked food after a month. He rested, and slept on and off. And then he got a call from Ali. Ali had made it to Europe.

“He lived in a camp at Turkey, did odd jobs, could not save enough to send back home. Having seen Turkey, he realised Europe was not just glitter and gold. He handed himself over to the police, who put him on a plane back home.”

Though there are no exact figures of how many people like Faraz travelled illegally to Europe this year, the Washington Post puts it at tens of thousands, although Syrians and Afghans make a bulk of those seeking asylum.

Would Faraz make the whole journey again if someone guarantees to take him to Europe. “If he gives me one hundred per cent guarantee, I think I will,” he says, adding his wife would try her best to stop him.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities.


Originally published here