Sea Buckthorn is hard to spot if you’re not looking for it. The restaurant opened on the roof of a double storey building in Najam Market, F-8/4 three months ago.
The space is divided almost equally between indoor and outdoor seating. Outside on a wood panelled balcony decorated with fairy lights, vines and planters and a row of caps traditional to the Hunza area that hang above the counter, there is one table for a larger group and two tables for four.
The indoor seating, also panelled in wood, is somewhat reminiscent of a cabin and has space for two groups.
Sea Buckthorn is one of a couple of restaurants in Islamabad that serves Hunzai food.
One of the owners, Mehnaz Parveen, said the concept behind the restaurant was to offer Hunzai cuisine using the same ingredients consumed up north, with a contemporary spin.
The menu is fairly extensive; it offers a number of appetisers and salads, several kinds of soup, vegetarian options, chicken mains, steaks and a few desserts.
The Hunza dumplings in chicken or mutton - also known as Mantu - are one of the restaurant’s popular items. One serving contains six chicken dumplings, with three different sauces. The dumplings are flavourful and light; and the sauces each add a completely different flavour to the dish.
There are a number of other appetiser options, from buckwheat crepes (called Giyaling) to potato corn fries and chicken or mutton chap shuro.
The mains part of the menu is a little more intimidating. There are a number of ingredients that the average Islamabad diner could be unfamiliar with, but on the whole it’s hard to pick just one thing to order.
The local nuts crumbed fried chicken is a much healthier take on fried chicken.
The texture in the dish comes from nuts such as almonds, and the dish is served with Hunza fries and a sweet and sour dip made of sea buckthorn seeds.
The thick cut potato chips are battered and crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside. The portion is also a good size, but for a more substantial option there’s the Girgir chicken.
Girgir is a Hunzai lentil, and for this dish chicken is slow-cooked in lentils and served with rice or naan.
The dish is flavourful without being spicy, and it feels somewhat like an exotic take on home-cooked food. It has an earthy and mild flavour, which is complemented by the rice served with tomatoes and scallions.
There are also a few vegetarian options on the menu, including Hosar-i-Kham, a pumpkin stew, and Hoi Lo Aloo Garma - pasta and potatoes cooked in water spinach.
For those inclined towards steaks, there are four including a yak steak served with either Salajeet or yak cheese sauce.
The walnut cake is actually more like a pie, with a biscuity crust and a sticky, sweet walnut filling. Although walnuts can be somewhat of an acquired taste, the bitterness of the walnuts is balanced nicely with sweetness.
“Sea buckthorn is like a shrub, you’ll find it everywhere in Hunza. It has thorns and small yellow and orange berries.
“I went to Germany three or four years ago, and this friend of mine took me to this really expensive store where everything’s made of sea buckthorn, all of which was coming from Hunza,” Ms Parveen said.
She said that she began researching sea buckthorn and read that it had a lot of health benefits, and began thinking of ways to incorporate it into one’s diet.
“It’s a very strong taste; it’s sour. So we created sauces out of sea buckthorn mixed with a fruit. We’re trying to bring it in our daily cuisine,” she said.
She added that they were also using ingredients traditional to Hunza that are now being replaced by products that go from here to Hunza, which are not as healthy. Yak meat and cheese are such ingredients, as is buckwheat. Food at the restaurant is also cooked in either almond or apricot oil.
Originally published in Dawn, October 22nd, 2018