Khan Shehram Eusufzye takes a stroll in the walled city to experience first-hand, the old quarters’ livelier than usual nights during Ramzan
The tape-covered tennis ball hits the plastic chair wicket with a thwack. Despite the young batsman’s protests (we’d decided the “wicket” is the back of the chair, not the legs, he says) the umpire has ruled him out. The scene is androon Lahore; Taxali Gate, to be specific. But the time isn’t the usual pre-maghrib affair. It’s two in the morning.
These youngsters are just killing time till sehri. After which, they will go to sleep till late in the day, a luxury afforded to them by the fact that summer vacations started from the 17th. Theirs is only one of the leagues upon leagues of cricket matches underway in the walled city at the time.
This part of town rarely sleeps, yes. But it is during the month of Ramzan where the nights are more festive than usual. The youngsters playing cricket have to play their game over side streets that would otherwise have been sparsely peopled at this hour; now, play is often interrupted, begrudgingly, for groups of people who have made their way into the walled city for a hearty sehri.
Lahore has everything one needs – good food, history stretching over centuries, and welcoming people. These qualities provide a chance to the observant minds to witness the city’s multiculturalism in a microcosm. According to an old saying in this ancient city: “In order to discover Lahore in its true essence, one should travel to its nook and crannies on an empty belly.”
The walled city of Lahore, famously referred to as the androon shehr by locals, is renowned for its hearty people. It is precisely these parts of the old city that have and still thrive on the back of its famous spices and foods. A walk through the narrow streets of the walled city lends much support to this age-old Lahori wisdom. Whether you’re wandering through a dense market or along the city’s side streets, the aromas draw in passersby to take a closer look at the delicacy that is being prepared in different corners of the winding streets. One cannot ask for a better time than Ramzan to discover the rich world of food which is literally just around the corner.
This time of the year, the city becomes the kind of food heaven that attracts foodies from all corners of the country by offering savoury delights. The Lahori experience is particularly special for those who are interested in celebrating the rich melting pot of diverse cultures through its cuisine. Like any other enterprising city, Lahore is famous for supporting two culinary worlds at the same time – one for the tourists and the other for locals.
Let us then venture into the complex network of streets and alleys of this amazing hybrid city which offer people with great fine dining options and an extensive variety of street food, and discover its culinary treasures and the atmosphere during the wee hours leading up to sehri.
If places can age and have a sell-by date, then they must have an interface between new and old. The old Lahore continues to bear the marks of age, such as the lingering association with traditional food that wafts in the air. Seemingly small but important things like these give the locals a reason to live in old Lahore’s overcrowded narrow streets. The streets are abuzz with vendors prepping their kiosks after the sun is pushed aside by the evening sky to officially open the doors for a long night of nibbling during the month of Muslim fasting.
Once the steady evening breeze sweeps across the city after sundown, crowds of locals throng these kiosks to get a taste of their favourite foods after spending a hard day at work. The manner in which these vendors prepare these traditional dishes are no less than a culinary marvel to an outsider. The fine meat choppings, savoury sprinklings and immaculate skillet skills of the cooks does inspire a sense of awe among onlookers. These cuisines hold a special place in the traditional cookbook of the denizens of Lahore.
Inside the famous Urdu Bazaar vicinity, a man opens the lid of an aluminium container to let out hissing steam that rises up to the night sky, cutting through the air in a dramatic dance. The smell of freshly cooked Nihari instantly revitalises the senses. Within the cacophony of voices, the person behind the huge cauldron calmly waits for the steam to settle down before he opens his shop for business. Within moments the area is jammed with large crowds of foodies, some already sitting on the tables after placing their orders, while others wait in patience to occupy seats as soon as they are vacated. The shops around the Nihari shop too are packed with customers, providing glimpses of a thriving micro-economy revolving around the food joint. This comparatively idyllic environment provides a respite from the riotous free-for-all that is a prevalent feature of old Lahore, where donkey carts, auto-rickshaws, pedestrians, buses, trucks and bicycles take part in melees during the day.
On the other side of the walled city is the newly constructed Fort Road food street, a culinary world created and designed for the taste buds of tourists. But in search of traditional cuisines, one has to venture into the adjoining streets. Once inside this food heaven, it is hard to resist the whiff of hot oil and sputtering spices. The air is filled with high-pitched shouts of shop owners rising above the collective noise of the busy streets. As the world goes by, one is drawn to the sight of trotters dipped into a large cauldron bubbling with broth, which also happens to be an all-time favourite amongst the locals.
In between this gastronomic affair, certain streets are only dedicated to nighttime tape-ball cricket. Under the street lights, young and old assemble to see multiple matches being played at the same time. Every street has its own set of rules, which more or less depends on the length and breadth of the street, but the end result is the same for all – the losing team foots the bill of the sehri.
All this activity seems to stop almost immediately when the sound of the morning azan is heard, indicating the beginning of the day’s fast. By the time the hustle and bustle subsides, one finds himself alone to greet the morning sun on deserted streets.