People gathering around a corner of a lane in Pakistan Chowk made one’s heart sink. You anticipate encountering terrible scenes of injured people, blood and broken limbs until you notice a tall fellow in the middle who seems to be in charge of something. He is handing the people around him something. And trying to get closer you feel silly when you realise that this not at all the scene of an accident. The people are gathered around a cart parked there and they are there for chana chaat!
“This is the best chaat in the world!” says a customer digging into his plate with his spoon.
“It is the cheapest, best tasting chaat in the world!” He is corrected by another customer enjoying spoonfuls while still on his motorcycle.
On being asked, the sellers of the snack say that a plate costs Rs40 each ... “But the crowd present there is also growing because they want to buy a plate or two before we go away,” says the tall fellow in the middle who is wearing a dark green apron with the Starbucks logo in the middle. “We come here for three hours only, from 3pm to 6pm,” he explains.
“What to do? We are all sold out in three hours anyway,” he smiles. There is no name on the cart. “We don’t have any name. We are just known as Iqbal Chholay Wala, our father’s name,” he adds.
Another cart nearby is selling pakoras and samosas along with French fries. One customer there buys a potato samosa to break it up into pieces before asking the chaat seller on the other side to pour his chaat and chutney over it. “I had heard of someone combining the two to make chaat like that here but I couldn’t find them. So I decided to innovate myself,” he smiles.
“It is so hot and humid these days. One just doesn’t feel like downing heavy meals at lunch or dinner time so we look for tasty snacks that would satisfy the hunger and not make us feel heavy,” says another customer still undecided between bun kebab and kachori across the road.
The bun kebab is for Rs30 each. And it is the real thing and not a confused thing made to look like a burger with coleslaw and ketchup. The squarish little bun has a kebab in the centre made of beef and lentils. And instead of cabbage there are onions and tomato and chutney, no mayonnaise.
The kachori is Rs10 each with free aloo tarkari (potato curry) and pickles. “We are here from 11am till 9.30pm every day but the rush we experience only after 5.30pm, which is also tea time for many Karachiites,” says the kachori seller.
There is also young Faisal at his Classic Gol Gappay stall wondering why he isn’t getting many customers. Perhaps asking Rs60 for a plate makes him the most expensive one among the lot. “But my paani phulki plate comprises eight gol gappay and a bowl of bittersweet water to fill them with before bursting them in your mouth to experience an explosion of flavours,” he says. Just his description makes you order a plate.
Dahi Baray is slightly more expensive and the place more famous for it is not Pakistan Chowk but Burnes Road. Here you see waiters willing to serve you in your air-conditioned car. There is a proper menu to choose from and the snacks are also served in disposable plates with disposable cutlery and tissues. So a plate of dahi baray or chaat at Rs75 is fine too. The samosas too are served very hot. But that’s where the car air-conditioning also comes in handy. Just hold it up against the air ducts on the dashboard before taking a bite.
Originally published in Dawn, July 7th, 2019