Best Traditional Food in Pakistan

Pakistan posses great ethnic and cultural diversity. It is not uncommon to hear people summarizing their cuisine as just “curry”.  But there is much more than that, of course. Their cuisine can be characterized by “a blend of various regional cooking traditions of the Indian subcontinent, Central Asia as well as elements from its Mughal legacy”.

These are some of the traditional dished we were lucky to try…

Khadda Dumba

Khadda Dumba
Khadda Dumba
Khadda Dumba in the making by Epice
Khadda Dumba in the making by Epice

I am going to start with Khadda Dumba as it seems the most original dish of all. This speciality is not that common, and you will rarely find it outside of the country. There is no much information online neither. It is basically slow cooked meat, normally lamb.

The process is quite curious, as you can see in the picture above. The lamb is hanging in two iron poles inside a whole on the ground. There is charcoal below and it is then covered by another iron piece, so the heat is contained and the lamb is cooked. The result is extremely tender meat.

We had the opportunity to try it when we were in Islamabad and we liked it a lot. The restaurant was called Bolan Saltish and is located in the Blue Area. They normally prepare it on Saturdays. Another recommended place to try it is Epice.

Biriyani

Chicken Biriyani
Chicken Biriyani (source: https://jwalanam.in/chicken-biriyani/)

This is probably the most established and well known traditional dish in Pakistan. It is mixed rice made with Indian spices, meat (chicken, goat, beef, prawn, or fish), vegetables or eggs.

The exact origin of the dish is uncertain, but it was developed in the Muslim areas of the Indian subcontinent.

Meat is the prime ingredient with rice, being chicken the most common type. The spices and condiments used in biryani may include ghee (clarified butter), nutmeg, mace, pepper, cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, bay leaves, coriander, mint leaves, ginger, onions, tomatoes, green chillies, and garlic. Other ingredients may include cashews, kismis and fruits, such as apples and pineapples.

It is usually accompanied by a side dish of raita (light yoghurt).

You will easily find Biriyani everywhere in Pakistan or in any Pakistani restaurant around the World. In our case we tried a few during our stay in Islamabad. Probably the most famous restaurant in the capital is Monal, which is uphill with an outstanding view of the city. You can try most of the dishes on the list there.

Chicken Tikka

Chicken Tikka
Chicken Tikka (source: https://feenix.co.in/product/chicken-tikka/)

Chicken Tikka is also a well-known dish from Pakistan, and it can be found in many countries around the World. Even some chains as Subway have it in their menu. It was originated in the Punjab region in the northern part of India.

It consists of small pieces of boneless chicken baked using skewers on a brazier called angeethi after marinating in Indian spices and dahi (yoghurt). It has a spicy and strong taste.

The word tikka (Tike in Turkish, and Tikə in Azerbaijani) is a Turkic word and means “bits” or “pieces”. The Kashmiri version of the dish, however, is grilled over red-hot coals and does not always contain boneless pieces. The pieces are brushed with ghee (clarified butter) at intervals to increase its flavour while being continuously fanned. It is typically eaten with green coriander and tamarind chutney served with onion rings and lemon or used in preparing a chicken tikka masala. [Wikipedia]

Although it is easy to find this dish around the World, there is a huge difference in taste. Locals think the spices are never the same, and they don’t like to have it in places that they don’t trust.

Nihari

Nihari
Nihari (source: https://food.ndtv.com/recipe-gosht-nihari-1-662699)

Nihari is basically a strong stew consisting of slow-cooked meat mainly shank meat of beef or lamb and mutton, goat meat and chicken, along with bone marrow.

People cooked it overnight and they got it in the early morning at sunrise. It is a popular dish and is regarded as the national dish of Pakistan. The dish is known for its spiciness and taste. The cooking process allows the dish to absorb the flavour of the bone marrow fully.

In some restaurants, a few kilos from each day’s leftover is added to the next day’s pot. This re-used portion of Nihari is called Taar and is believed to provide its unique flavour. [Wikipedia]

There are variations of it in different regions. Having Nihari and Halwa Puri in breakfast is popular among people living in Lahore and Islamabad.

Haleem

Haleem
Haleem (source: https://food.ndtv.com/recipe-haleem-738250)

Haleem is also a very popular stew that is cooked overnight. Although the dish varies from region to region, it always includes wheat or barley, and sometimes meat and/or lentils. Other countries that have variations include Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and northern Iraq, Armenia and Bangladesh.

This dish is slow cooked for six to eight hours, which results in a paste-like consistency, blending the flavours of spices, meat, barley and wheat. It can be served with chopped mint leaves, lemon juice, coriander leaves, fried onions, chopped ginger root or green chillies.

In some regions of Pakistan, Haleem is eaten with Naan or with any type of bread or rice. It is quite popular on their religious festive months, Muharram and Ramadan.

Kebab (Seekh)

Kebab
Kebab on the Highland Resort’s restaurant

Kebabs are various cooked meat dishes, with their origins in the Middle East, but quite popular throughout Asia, and around the world.

They are often cooked on a skewer and served with flat-bread or Naan, vegetables and different kind of sauces. The traditional meat for kebabs is most often mutton or lamb, but regional recipes may include beef, goat, chicken, fish, or more rarely due to religious prohibitions, pork.

In most English-speaking countries, a kebab is commonly the internationally-known shish kebab or shashlik, though outside of North America a kebab may be the ubiquitous fast-food doner kebab or its variants. People in these areas tend to think that Kebab is the same as Doner, which is the one that is cooked on a vertical rotisserie and then sliced into thin shavings.

In contrast, in Indian English and in the languages of the Middle East, other parts of Asia, and the Muslim world, a kebab is any of a wide variety of grilled meat dishes. Some dishes ultimately derived from Middle Eastern kebab may have different names in their local languages.

Kebabs are a staple item in Pakistani cuisine today, and one can find countless varieties of kebabs all over the country. Each region has its own varieties of kebabs, but some like the Seekh kebab, Chicken Tikka, Shami and Gola kebabs are especially popular throughout the country and in some other parts of South Asia.

Seekh kebab, in particular, is made with Indian spices mixed with minced or ground meat, formed into cylinders on skewers and grilled. It is typically cooked on a mangal or barbecue, or in a tandoor.

We tried kebabs in the Highland Resort’s restaurant (see picture above) and we totally recommend it. You can also try most of the dished on this list.

Chicken Korma

Chicken Korma
Chicken Korma (source: https://dinnerthendessert.com/indian-chicken-korma/)

Korma is a dish consisting of meat or vegetables braised with yoghurt (dahi) or cream, water or stock, and spices to produce a thick sauce or glaze.

The flavour of a korma is based on a mixture of spices, including ground coriander and cumin, combined with yoghurt kept below curdling temperature and incorporated slowly and carefully with the meat juices.

In the many countries as the UK, a korma as served in curry houses is a mildly spiced dish with a thick sauce. It often includes almonds, cashews or other nuts, and coconut or coconut milk. Chicken korma has several times been cited as the most popular curry in the UK, replacing chicken tikka masala in public surveys. You can easily find both sauces ready to eat in any supermarket.

What’s the difference between masala and korma? “Masala is any of many blends of spices used in Indian cuisine, most often containing cardamom, coriander, mace together with pepper, nutmeg, fennel seeds, jeera etc; while korma is a curry made from various spices especially coriander and cumin; and often with yoghurt sauce or nuts.” [WikiDiff]

Halwa Puri

Halwa Puri
Halwa Puri (source: https://www.wikihow.com/Make-Halwa-Puri)

Halwa Puri (poori) is a traditional breakfast consisting of a deep-fried bread (poori), served with halwa and curries mixed of chickpeas (known locally as ‘choley‘) and potato.

Some of the ingredients to prepare it are ghee or canola oil, semolina, sugar, cloves, kewra essence, cardamom, sultanas and almonds.

A variety of bakeries often set up stalls of Halwa Poori for breakfast that offer dine in at the street scene or offer take away.

Personally, I prefer Halwa as a sweet treat in the afternoon. However, locals have it for breakfast or lunch, typically with some chickpea curry and yoghurt.

Kheer

Kheer
Kheer (source: https://www.archanaskitchen.com/nariyal-ki-kheer-recipe-coconut-pudding)

Kheer is the most famous traditional dessert in Pakistan. It is basically rice pudding, which is served cold, flavoured and topped with dried nuts.

It is prepared using milk, rice, ghee, sugar/jaggery, and khoya. Some also add a little bit of heavy cream for a richer taste. It is flavoured with cardamom, raisins, saffron, cashews, pistachios, almonds or other dry fruits and nuts. It is also known in some regions as meetha bhaat, payasam, payasa, and phirni.

Gulab Jamun

Gulab Jamun
Gulab Jamun

Gulab Jamun, or just sweet fried balls, are made mainly from milk solids, traditionally from Khoya, which is milk reduced to the consistency of a soft dough, which is then fried.

The balls are then soaked in a light sugar syrup flavoured with green cardamom and rose water, kewra or saffron. They are often garnished with dried nuts such as almonds to enhance flavour.


*** If you need more information about Pakistan, we recommend our friend’s blog Zewanderingfrogs, where you can find great posts about Islamabad and Shandur, Hushe and Kalash Valleys.

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