My quest for the best halwa puri in Lahore

My quest for the best halwa puri in Lahore

Discovering 'poora' halwa was only one of the highlights of my journey
Updated 15 Oct, 2015

If there's one thing Lahore offers in abundance, it's food.

That's not to say that the city has nothing else to offer; it's just that traditional fare happens to be one of its chief attractions.

So when it comes to breakfast — a high priority for us Lahoris — it's not surprising that a sweet and savoury serving of halwa puri is a greatly loved meal.

Halwa puri is said to have originated in the Indian subcontinent, mainly in Punjab, but is also said to be popular in the Terai region of Nepal, particularly in its Madheshi community.

The dish traditionally comprises thin, deep-fried, puffed up bread (puris), served with halwa (a dessert prepared typically with semolina, ghee, sugar and sometimes garnished with nuts), and a mildly spicy curry of chickpeas and potato.

A variation is two separate curries instead of one: chickpeas and aaloo ki bhujia. A few old-school cooks serve halwa puri with mango pickle and sliced onion. And if had for breakfast, this meal isn’t complete without a glass full of sweetened lassi (yoghurt-milk drink).

Not the healthiest choice to start your day with some may say, but it’s halwa puri, and you’re allowed to cheat once in a while.

So, after having enjoyed halwa puri for as long as I can remember, I headed out in search of some of the best the town has to offer. And that’s one difficult task, for there are way too many shops around with their distinct add-ons and variations. I decided to take the challenge head on, with some thorough research. I made a list, called up a friend and out we went on a motorbike on an early morning food adventure.

Taj Mahal Sweets

Taj Mahal Sweets' owner says all recipes used at the shop are his own
Taj Mahal Sweets' owner says all recipes used at the shop are his own

Price: Rs 20

Breakfast timings: 3:30am to 1:30pm

After hours menu: Sweets, ras malai and samosas

Our first stop was Taj Mahal Sweets — and boy, was it a good start!

Located in the narrow streets of Taxali Gate and opposite the Badshahi Mosque, the shop's bustling environs made clear that it benefits from its prominent location. Where there's bustle, there's trouble — and a signpost warned us to watch out for our belongings. So we sat down at a spot where we could keep an eye on our vehicle.

When we finally got down to ordering breakfast, we discovered that Taj Mahal Sweets offered two types of halwas — the regular sooji and a ‘poora’ halwa. The latter definitely piqued my curiosity, and I learned that it was the owner's invention and the shop's bestselling item. I knew I had to try it.

The anticipation was worth it, for we were served a hearty meal. I dug in immediately, breaking off a piece of the piping hot, puffed-up puri and scooped up some poora halwa for a first bite.

This yellow-brown halwa is made with congealed/thickened milk (khoya) and sprinkled with assorted nuts. It melted in my mouth, and thankfully did not leave an overpowering aftertaste. It has to be the most scrumptious halwa I have ever had with puri.

The halwa puri meal at Taj Mahal Sweets
The halwa puri meal at Taj Mahal Sweets

What made the meal even better were the delicious chanay. Instead of the typical brown salan, the chickpeas floated in a yellow curry, served with freshly sliced onion. It was spiced up with a liberal dose of red chilli flakes, which hit your tastebuds immediately. These chanay were also better than any other I've had in Lahore so far. Light, appropriately spicy, soft and, with those onion slices, they made for quite a treat, the kind that makes you want more.

When we finally parted with our breakfast plates, we were lucky to discover that the man on the counter was the owner himself. And the elderly Chaudhry Muhammad Akram had some interesting tales to share.

“I opened up this shop 50 years ago. I entered the field at the age of 10 at the now-shut-down McLeod Road Sweet Corner, which was owned by my relatives. I would get up at 2:30am to practise and learn. After spending six to seven years there, I moved on to a couple of other shops, and then started cooking somewhere," he told us about his early days.

"I went through really tough times," he recalls. "I prayed to God that I’ll work as hard as required, but to get me out of this poverty. When children my age were playing around, I spent my life at shrines. I set up this shop at the age of 17. It’s been 50 years now.”

The interior of Taj Mahal sweets is dotted with pictures of shrines
The interior of Taj Mahal sweets is dotted with pictures of shrines

The interior of Taj Mahal Sweets is dotted with pictures of shrines as a nod to Akram's childhood. He says he still visits shrines and sends 20kg of that scrumptious poora to Data Darbar every Thursday.

“When I started out, I was called mad, as this place was uninhabited. Business wasn't this good in the start. For the first two years, I event slept at the shop. I cooked and sold everything myself. A few years ago, my friend told me to give it all up because of my health. But I said if God’s giving me so much, why should I stop? The day God doesn’t help, I’ll wrap up."

"I’m the first person in the family to come into this field, and I doubt my children could take over after me. It’s a tough job and requires waking up early. They can’t do any of this,” he went on.

Akram said all the recipes were his own creations and he uses special ingredients, some of which he brought over from India. In addition to halwa puri (costing a mere Rs 20) , he also serves chicken and qeema tikkis (cutlets) for breakfast.

The owner, Chaudhry Muhammad Akram
The owner, Chaudhry Muhammad Akram

One of his customers, Hafiz Ali, was engrossed in his breakfast when I mustered the courage to disturb him. “This is by far the best halwa puri I have come across in Lahore. I don’t care how far I live, but I make it a point to come here at least once a week, mostly on a weekend. It’s totally worth it,” he said.

Akram named his shop Taj Mahal Sweets due to his childhood desire to visit the monument. 35 years ago, his wish came true and he saw the Taj standing in its grandeur on a full-moon night. “Aisay jaisay aik plate mein anda rakha ho, aur saath darya beh raha tha,” Akram said.

He also said he visited quite a few cities in India, but did not find halwa puri that could match his. Asked if he was aware of the origins of halwa puri, he said he just knew it was introduced by Hindus a long time before Partition.

On that note, we thanked Akram for his time at peak work hours and took our leave, sated by that poora.

Chand Shahab Sweets

Price: Rs 30

Breakfast timings: 7am to 12pm

After hours menu: Sweets

Our next stop was another decades-old shop, Chand Shahab Sweets, popularly known as Shaabu. It was just a lane away from Taj Mahal Sweets, in the street popular for Peshawari chappals.

We got there a little early, as they were just starting to set up. Their halwa puri — sold for Rs30 a puri — wasn’t the most appetising. The chanay looked, well, boring — but I noticed they serve it with mango achaar (pickle), which is not a condiment that usually accompanies halwa puri. The achaar and sliced onions were the bland chanay's only saving grace, but the halwa wasn’t too bad.

The halwa puri at Shaabu wasn't the best
The halwa puri at Shaabu wasn't the best

The shop's owner, we learned, has an erratic schedule, so we talked to one of his oldest employees, Allah Ditta, who has been working at the shop for 25 years.

Allah Dita told us that Chand was the man who started this shop before Partition and Shahab was his son. The family also owned the Zakariya Hospital.

He said that during the week, the shop is frequented by residents of the Walled City, but customers from all over town pour in on the weekends.

We took his word for it and moved on.

Karachi Sweet Shop

Price: Rs 20

Breakfast timings: 12am to 2pm

After hours menu: Tikkis (cutlets), poora (different from what Taj Mahal Sweets served, this is a sweet round cake), jalebi, sweet pakoras and shukur-paray

Our third stop was Karachi Sweet Shop in Old Anarkali. Due to the lack of a signboard, this place is hard to find. It is located right at the mouth of the food street, if one is coming from the direction of The Mall.

Their halwa puri serving was pretty much standard, with a hot and fluffy puri and an appropriately sweet halwa. However, the chanay stood out for their high spice level (it does not go down easy!) and its different presentation. The cholay were cooked separately from the potatoes. They first poured the chanay onto a plate followed by a spoonful of potatoes over them.

Overall, the experience was satisfactory for Rs20, but after Taj Mahal Sweets, nothing seemed to come close.

Karachi Sweet Shop offers an assortment of sweets and savouries
Karachi Sweet Shop offers an assortment of sweets and savouries

We spoke to the shop's in-charge Rana Asif, whose father the late Rana Abdul Hameed, was a wrestler who opened the shop when there were only four halwa puri joints in the city. Asif joined the shop 12 years after a stint as an AC mechanic in Dubai.

“My father would tell us that he would walk around here and say one day he’d have a shop here. After a few years, with God’s grace, he had one. He earned a lot of respect and success,” Asif told us.

Like Akram at Taj Mahal Sweets, Asif was also unaware of the origins of halwa puri, but reiterated the notion that it was introduced by Hindus in the pre-Partition era.

Butt Sweets

Price: Rs 15

Next on my list was the very popular Butt Sweets. Following a rainy night, we headed over to its branch on McLeod Road, Lakshmi Chowk in the wee hours of the morning.

This was Butt Sweets' first branch, which spreads over both corners of a narrow lane. On one side was their sweets, confectioneries and bakery shop, and on the other was the fried foods set-up, selling an assortment of traditional snacks. Those going for breakfast were seated on one side of this narrow lane, and were often showered by rainwater when bikes and cars zoomed past.

They served the cheapest halwa puri at Rs15 per puri. Their potato-chana curry serving was generous, and definitely deserves to be recommended as one of the better ones in town. The curry was not spicy; its taste was slightly different from those I had earlier tried. We also ordered a poora, which was oily but delicious.

The halwa puri at Butt Sweets was a good meal on the whole
The halwa puri at Butt Sweets was a good meal on the whole

The freshly fried puri had a distinctive aroma and was not chewy or elastic-y as those that I had from a few other places. The halwa smelled and tasted as I expected it would; the sweetness wasn’t overpowering, its texture soft and not artificially coloured. The visit was definitely worth it and I would go back there.

Butt Sweets' freshly fried puris had a distinctive aroma
Butt Sweets' freshly fried puris had a distinctive aroma

My friend and I then went over to pay the bill and have a little chat with the oldest person we could find, assuming he’d have the most information. Without disclosing his name, the man said the owners set up this shop in 1947 when it used to be just a tiny space.

He refused to give us any more information, insisting we speak to the owners. I left them my visiting card, but never received a call.

However, according to their Facebook page, Ghulam Qadir Butt, along with his sons Abdul Hameed Butt and Haji Nazir Ahmed Butt, laid the foundation of a sweet and samosa shop, a “custom that is as old as Pakistan itself”.

One of the customers, Nadir, who shared a table with us, claimed he had been coming to Butt Sweets for halwa puri for 35 years. “It’s different because of its taste and quality. Both have been consistent since I have been visiting. I have tried halwa puri from almost everywhere in Lahore, but this is where I always come back to even though I don’t live nearby.”

Sadiq Halwa Puri

Price: Rs25

Breakfast timings: Fajr to 2:30pm (no post-breakfast meal served)

Other items on the menu: Chicken and mutton cutlets

Next, I decided to visit Sadiq Halwa Puri, another shop I had heard a lot about from connoisseurs of traditional food. I visited the branch on Railway Road; their second branch is on main Ichhra road near Shama cinema.

Upon entering, we were greeted by a sign warning us of pickpockets. But our meal soon put us at ease.

Along with the usual halwa, puri and a generous serving of chanay, a poora was also part of the meal, unlike at other shops where you order it separately. As soon as I popped the puffed poori, I noticed how soft and slightly flaky it was, meaning it was supposed to be had immediately or it would crumble. The curry looked different, and got me curious.

This halwa puri is a treat!
This halwa puri is a treat!

As I took the first bite, I was transported to another world. It was hands down the most mouth-watering curry I have ever had. It surpassed Taj Mahal Sweets, which was my favourite so far in the hunt.

Now, while it looked almost the same as the other cholay did, its taste was distinct. Only after a few more bites did I realise what made it different: they cooked the potatoes with fenugreek (methi) and added it to the chickpeas curry. I couldn’t stop myself from gorging on the halwa puri and in this entire adventure had a second puri for the first time. Even their halwa tasted different and better than the rest, and then there was that oily, lip-smacking poora to finish off the meal.

While eating, I noticed a board that said that the shop had been around since 1880. My friend and I were shocked.

After we polished off our plates, we headed to the elderly man taking orders. He was the grandson of the man who had started this shop.

“My grandfather, Chiragh Din, started selling halwa puri in Amritsar in 1880 under this very name and migrated to Pakistan in 1948. He started a small shop nearby and later moved to our current location," Muhammad Jameel told us.

"This shop is named after my father, Muhammad Sadiq (whose framed black-and-white picture was hanging inside the shop). The fourth generation of our family is running the shop as my son has now started looking after it too,” he continued.

“Our shop spread over eight kanals at Chitti Haweli in Amritsar and my grandfather employed around 200 workers at that time. We were a big deal there,” he said, adding that his grandfather was the first Muslim in the subcontinent to enter the halwa puri business in Amritsar.

Jameel also divulged their secret ingredient: desi ghee!

As we conversed with Jameel, customers started lining up outside. One of them, Muhammad Sabir, said he had come from Dharampura and had just one thing to say about this place: “It’s the best and most popular shop in the city.”

Their busiest season is the summer, I learned, because that is when "women don’t feel like cooking so they ask their husbands or children to fetch breakfast from us!”

The verdict

This brought to an end my fulfilling journey to find the best halwa puri in Lahore — and what an experience it was! While Sadiq serves the best halwa puri, Taj Mahal Sweets is a very close second for its exceptional halwa. Next on my ranking would be Butt Sweets, then the Karachi Sweet Shop and Shabbu at the end.

At the end, I realised how much more enjoyable this adventure will be on cool winter mornings. I'm imagining the piping hot puris and flavour-packed chanas beckoning another journey... I can hardly wait!