Spicy Things, Crunchy Things
The Story of Karachi's Fast Food. Words by Saba Imtiaz; Illustration by Ada Jusic.
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The question I get asked most as editor of Vittles is the one I find the trickiest to answer. It’s the one asked with a hint of frustration when I’ve turned down one too many pitches, or asked by interviewers when they want a neat answer to what the temperament of this newsletter actually is: “What type of article do you like to publish?”. And in truth, I don’t have a neat answer to that question but I sometimes point people in two separate directions. One is to Italo Calvino’s Six Memos For The Next Millenium, one of the writer’s last projects in which he lays out the six characteristics his ideal form of literature would take, ones which would set us up for the next 1000 years. The first of these characteristics is lightness: writing that takes off on its own lack of weight, mercurial, quicksilver and nimbly connecting ideas as they float away. On this point I agree with Calvino: this tends to be the writing I love to read.
The second direction is to the chicken fillet roll episode of the Blindboy Podcast, which is, in my opinion, one of the greatest bits of food writing ever read aloud, and also an example of Calvino’s levity in practice. In the episode, the Irish podcaster, satirist and musician Blindboy starts off by saying that the chicken fillet roll is the subject most requested by his listeners, heightening expectations, and then proceeds to pole vault over them by weaving a hot take so searing that burns the roof of your mouth as you listen, threading the dual history of the chicken fillet roll and the breakfast roll around the Irish economic boom known as the Celtic Tiger and the subsequent recession, until you firmly believe that they are one and the same thing.
All of this to say that I love today’s newsletter by Saba Imtiaz, who had me as soon as she emailed me the words ‘kebab roll’. As Akira Kurosawa (and George Lucas) knew before her, you can tell a grand tale through the lowliest of its characters, and today’s story is the history of Karachi where the two main actors are the kebab roll (also known as the paratha roll) and the pseudo-Western fast food burger. It’s a story about a changing city, of globalisation, of religious fundamentalism, of the rise of the middle class, of the complex relationship between the West and Pakistan, of entrepreneurship, of food tourism, of creative imitation, of Zingers, of garlic sauce, of spicy things, of crunchy things. There’s a paragraph at the end, simply a list of kebab rolls, that would make Mark Wiens’s eyes pop out of his head. Which, now that I think about it, isn’t a bad description of what I think a Vittles article should do.
Spicy Things, Crunchy Things: The Story of Karachi’s Fast Food
When Hafiz Habib ur Rehman, the owner of Karachi’s Silver Spoon restaurant, put a new item on the menu, his customers had no idea that it was a wrap, meant to be eaten rolled up. It was a fairly simple creation: minced beef wrapped in a crisp paratha, served with chutney. But people didn’t understand the concept. They’d unwrap it, break off pieces of the paratha, and scoop up the kebab with it, eating it like they normally would. The staff had to tell customers that it was meant to be eaten rolled up, that this was something new.
The confusion wasn’t surprising. In 1971, all barbecued food in Karachi was eaten this way: parathas served as an accompaniment to the meat, just like roti or naan. Besides, Silver Spoon wasn’t known to be a hub of culinary innovation; it served chaat and ice cream. But Habib ur Rehman had seen a street vendor near his house in Ramaswamy Bazaar sell a paratha with a shami kebab pressed in the middle. In a fit of inspiration, he barbecued some beef on a seekh, placed it on a paratha and wrapped it in butter paper.
This was how the Silver Spoon kebab roll came into being.
It took roughly four years for the idea to catch on, by which time the street in front of Silver Spoon had become littered with butter wrapper papers. The kebab roll appealed to a burgeoning middle-class consumer demographic, particularly women, who would use Silver Spoon as a pitstop while on extensive fabric-buying sprees. Their bored children were lulled into compliance by the promise of snacks. Yet the kebab roll was something more than a novelty snack. It paved the way for the idea of fast food in Karachi, of something quick and comforting, spicy and/or crunchy - zingers, crispy fries, Slims, malpuras, parathas ordered ‘laal’, extra crispy. It was part of a new food culture that borrowed from established indigenous concepts yet allowed for inventiveness and a complete disregard for Pakistani culinary norms. This culture did not care for whether something was ‘authentic’, if it was meant to be eaten in this way or that. Soon this culture would turn befuddled customers into lifelong loyalists and transform Karachi into a city obsessed with fast food.
Karachi, undoubtedly, is a city with great food; perhaps even a ‘food city’, given that socialising and entertaining revolves around eating out. Yet this is a relatively recent development. Restaurant culture has evolved over the decades from being exclusive to the elite to expanding to the upper-middle-class, to the middle-class, to the working class, often serving the same dishes but at different prices. In the 1970s, restaurants in Karachi were largely patronised by an elite, whose social lives meant going out to private clubs, hotel cafés, bars and cabarets that served everything from French food to whisky. Western tourists, mainly hippies coming through the Khyber Pass, flooded into Karachi to enjoy its beaches, boosting this restaurant culture. There were also local restaurants, like Al Haaj Bundoo Khan, which served barbecue or traditional, laboriously prepared stews like nihari and haleem. Places like Silver Spoon were similar to snack bars.
While the kebab roll thrived, the Raza brothers had noticed another gap in the market. The brothers had initially approached McDonald’s and Burger King about franchising in Pakistan after noticing the queues in Europe. But the chains balked at the idea of opening in Karachi. Undeterred, the brothers worked at a McDonald’s in Connecticut to learn the ropes before opening Mr. Burger in Karachi in 1980. This time the city was ready for something different: something aspirational that wasn't like the food that they could get at home, and was accessible to restaurants that didn’t have barriers to entry. Copycats sprung up with names like Burger Time and Kings & Queens. Fried chicken places like Karachi Broast – whose ‘white sauce’ is still the stuff of legend – and Jan’s opened up in the early 1980s. A Mr. Burger even opened off Tariq Road, right by Silver Spoon.
The story of fast food arriving in the developing world is almost always hailed as the triumph of globalisation (and insulin manufacturers) and an embrace of the West. But in Karachi, the creators of urban fast-food culture, are these somewhat forgotten restaurants which filled the gap between the bun kebab and McDonald’s. The city’s economy boomed but Pakistan was still seen as too risky to invest in; nevertheless, the Mr. Burgers, Burger Times and Kings & Queens of the world built Karachi’s fast food, without waiting for the West’s approval.
The remaking of Karachi as a fast-food city wasn’t by choice or some concerted effort. Over several decades, entertainment – bars, nightclubs, cinemas – was stripped out of the city’s culture. The Western tourists left. Ethnic and sectarian riots had taken place in the city before but, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, brutal violence against the Mohajir ethnic community sparked full-fledged ethnic and political strife, pulling in a Mohajir political party that had an armed militia. In 1990, the Star newspaper published a restaurant guide “to defy the predominant gloom that [had] overtaken the city” even though, the paper said, “eating out [had] become a more hazardous activity in Karachi.”
The violence between armed activists and the state continued until the mid-1990s, with several brutal repressions, random lulls and outbursts, and seemingly endless strikes that shut the city down. By the late 1990s, when the violence had abated somewhat, it turned out there was little else to do but go out and eat, at least if you were middle-class. The elite still had concerts and parties, but for the middle-class there was only the occasional meal or ice cream or, when things were a little better, a play or a film. The city was ready for a new experience.
When KFC first opened in Karachi in 1997, so many people flooded the outlet that flocked to it they had to call in the police to do crowd control. ‘Authentic’ Western fast food had arrived, and yet it was unaffordable for the middle-class it was meant for. Pizza Hut, which had opened slightly before KFC, was also pricey: a personal pan pizza and a soda at the time cost between two hundred to two hundred and fifty rupees. For a family of four living in a middle-class area, that would have meant about one fifth of their rent.
Middle-class neighbourhoods like mine could afford the ersatz version of the globalised burger or pizza at a Mr. Burger or a Burger Time, or Kings & Queens Pizza, or Pizza 2000. As a child I was proud of Burger Time: it was almost as if I had a hand in inventing its special mystery sauce. I realise now that I had a kind of prickly Karachi swagger that the taste I had developed was discerning, that I could tell this was a far more superior burger, if not experience, than KFC or McDonald’s. My first experiences eating the food from either place in Karachi were underwhelming, more so because I had also imbibed my parents’ warning that some things were just not worth the money. It’s the kind of Karachi attitude that led to suspicious jibes that the very doughy pies at Pizza Hut were just keema naan – a jibe that is partially true, I guess, but made us feel better for not being able to afford it.
Amid all these choices, the kebab roll was somewhat forgotten. By the time I was at university, my friends and I were all eating fast food – either cheap versions or the real deal when we could cobble together the money. We stopped eating all our meals at home; instead, we found ourselves – via osmosis, Orkut, or just wandering around – in the latest restaurant or snack bars that offered something cheap and delicious. It was after 9/11 and a time of remarkably manufactured social and economic shifts, given that Pakistan was being ruled by a military dictatorship that governed nearly every area of society and politics. Everything felt new: the music we were hearing, uploaded on slow dial-up internet connections by a burst of young musicians out of Lahore, Karachi and Peshawar. Suddenly, every boy had a guitar, playing the same plinky-plonky version of Wonderwall. Everything was contrived: low-interest rates, consumerism, “enlightened moderation” – the military regime’s way of saying “we’re not that kind of Muslim, we listen to music and have fashion shows.”
It was then that the kebab roll rebounded into our lives, by way of a place called Hot-n-Spicy. It was nothing more than a shack with a kitchen and a parking area, offering takeaways only. Runners would come to the car to take orders. The menu was basic: kebab rolls and fries. But it introduced us to a new, powerful idea: what if you put a garlic mayo sauce in the kebab roll? Hot-n-Spicy’s sauce would make kebab rolls addictive and, in the days and years to come, a standout of Pakistani fast food, eclipsing Silver Spoon and, briefly, Western fast food as well.
“At that time the roll used to sell so much that almost 150 people would be queuing up on one side and 150 would be in a line on the other side,” recalled Mujahid Hussain, who worked at Hot-n-Spicy’s first branch at Khadda Market as a runner. What Hot-n-Spicy had going for it, other than its unending buzz, was the crunch of the puri it used as a wrap and the sauces that went inside the roll. This delectable combination captured the imagination of a coming-of-age group of upwardly mobile young Karachiites like myself. Its ease of consumption had something to do with it: we could scarf down kebab rolls between classes and could have a full meal for less than a hundred rupees. A roll cost twenty-five rupees and fries were thirty; for a hundred rupees, you could have two rolls, fries and even a drink with some change leftover for a tip.
By contrast, a single KFC Zinger burger cost around 130 rupees, a price unaffordable to most students. But Karachi’s entrepreneurs are used to finding jugaar – innovative shortcuts. They took one look at KFC’s plastic trays, counters and uniforms, and at the salad bar of Pizza Hut, then opened a whole bunch of copycat restaurants, offering the same food, if not the same sanitised experience. KFC’s Zinger burger, in particular, became replicated across Pakistani fast-food menus at places called AFC. It was entrepreneurial, sure, but it was also a fuck you to the gatekeepers of Americana. It was a cultural statement: restaurants could innovate and offer an experience to Karachi’s residents that would account for their desire for spice, crunch and taste, and deliver the same aspirations of American franchises without the high prices. This was not Western or South Asian fast food; it was Karachi fast food.
Karachi is a city that almost always delivers. There’s always a guy who can locate a medicine that’s out of stock, free the Amazon parcel held up in customs and hook up all sorts of things that blur the lines of legality. It’s the kind of city that was once cosmopolitan, vintage-travel-poster cool, and now attracts Vice crews looking for a gunfight. Its residents have long been used to living in a perpetual state of shock and awe, and to larger-than-life stories, like the woman who killed her husband and was planning to cook the remains. Last winter, I was served roasted sweet potato at a street cart that came wrapped in a copy of someone’s death certificate. I suppose I’m so inured to the city's bizarre ways, and its cruel and informal recycling system, that I read about the person’s death as I tucked into my food.
It’s this same ability to deliver anything at any price that has led to the infinity of kebab rolls that have sprung up in the last decade. In my neighbourhood alone, I can order a garlic mayo roll, cheese roll, beef Bihari roll, chicken reshmi roll, chicken malai roll or crispy chicken roll from Hot-n-Spicy; a chicken Shangri-la roll at Hot and Crispy; an Afghani boti roll, mayo garlic roll, cheese roll, or a beef seekh kebab cheese roll from Biryani Centre; a pizza roll or crispy pizza roll from Milano Pizza and Fast Food’s; a chicken malai ketchup roll, chicken ketchup spicy roll, chicken chatpata roll, beef Bihari ketchup roll or a beef Bihari garlic mayo roll from Red Apple; a chicken juicy roll from Master Restaurant, a chilli roll or a spicy chapli roll from Chapli Kebab House; or a crispy fish roll from Tooso’s. In a ludicrous full-circle moment, KFC, whose Zinger burger has been copied from here to eternity, introduced a limited Zinger roll - the Zingeratha.
Karachi is now so well known as a food city that it has recently attracted a scourge of white travel bloggers – seemingly with government support – to marvel over its food and markets, spouting stereotypes to do a PR push for Pakistan. And yet when I think about all the foods that Karachi is actually famous for - nihari, haleem, biryani - I’m aware that it doesn’t really have a strong claim over them. The restaurants making these foods stress their origins, which is why so many restaurant names are prefaced with Delhi or Meeruth or Bombay, or why one can buy packaged Bombay biryani masala. While these dishes may now have a uniquely Karachi flavour, they are rooted in India or Myanmar or Afghanistan. Outside the Indian subcontinent, the label of Pakistani food is used interchangeably with Indian food, even though what people are often referring to is neither, but actually Punjabi food.
But the kebab roll is a purely Karachi innovation, something that only this city can claim. Karachi’s residents have a chaska, an almost unquenchable yearning for good food. In Karachi, distances and traffic, the things we complain about all the time, inexplicably cease to exist when it comes to a meal. Just like pizza toppings on parathas and chicken tikka on pizzas, the kebab roll and the ensuing years of fast-food copycats are proof of Karachi’s unique chaska, like a shop flooded with fake Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger T-shirts, one where the vendor and consumer alike have no interest in authenticity. It doesn’t matter whether it’s American or Chinese or American-via-Dubai: what Karachi’s restaurants care about is that they can make you a version of the same thing, even if it tastes slightly too hot or the logo seems off, or they have to serve it in a recycled death certificate. As long as it’s spicy and crunchy, it’s worth it.
Saba Imtiaz is a freelance journalist in Karachi. She is currently co-researching a longform project about women in Pakistani high society in the 1970s. You can find more of her work at sabaimtiaz.com. This was partially reported while Saba Imtiaz was supported by the International Women’s Media Fund through the Kim Wall Memorial Fund.
The illustration is by Ada Jusic, who specialises in illustrations with a political or social context. You can find more of her illustrations at https://adajusic.com/ .
Many thanks to Meher Varma for additional edits.
Pakistani Street Food by Mark Wiens (Mr Burger shows up a few minutes in)