Growing up, as Ramazan neared, I remember I’d start looking out for advertisements for “all-you-can-eat” iftar deals. It was always Pizza Hut who had everyone the most excited. Well, to be honest, the “food scene” in Karachi as people now like to call it, hadn’t exploded back then the way it has now and Pizza Hut used to be one of the few international franchises that existed.
You’d see people building a mound of salad at the salad bar — bits of macaroni falling on to the plate that actually held the bowl meant for the salad — hurrying their way back to their table hoping no one would stop them mid-way to take it all back.
In 2021, in the middle of a pandemic that has everyone at least six feet apart, thinking about sitting at a dining table with people elbow to elbow and piling on food on their plate, seems surreal.
How have restaurants grappled with this “new normal”? Two words: food platters.
“We started [making] grazing platters because we were looking for different streams of revenue during lockdown,” says Kamil Rahim, co-owner of Evergreen. “They are very convenient now that a lot of people are entertaining at home in small groups.”
Sadaf Furqan, who runs YayyCheese, a home-based business that makes cheese boards, seems to agree.
“Social distancing has played a huge part because people are trying to avoid meeting each other,” she says. “There is an increase in the trend of people giving iftar platters and boxes to friends and families instead. It is driving us crazy,” she laughs.
Zoya Marri, who runs Thyme, an upscale restaurant known for their dessert boards, says the popularity of the platters also has to do with people wanting more things to choose from.
“When you come to a restaurant, you have a menu to choose from but when you are at home, you are quite limited,” Marri says. “You also don’t want a big portion size at home but you do want to recreate the feeling of eating at a restaurant.”
This is how she came up with her first dessert platter. “In 2019, when no one else was doing it,” she adds.
As with any food trend that takes off, there are concerns about restaurants jumping on the bandwagon to make a quick buck with not a lot of thought invested in standing out or doing things differently from the rest and it has started to irk some business owners who consider themselves “first-movers”.
Sundus Rasheed, who runs a home-based business called Yummy Mummy And Me that has recently introduced a Middle Eastern food platter, says, “What we are seeing now is just cheese, bread, honey and jam [on a platter], which to me is a little bit generic.
“I want businesses to do platters that give people access to flavours they may not have tried before,” she explains. “Currently we are probably the only ones during a cuisine-centric one.”
I’d love for someone to do a Bohri food platter, Rasheed says.
Marri also thinks food businesses have introduced platters just for the sake of getting on the trend.
“Restaurants have started giving two or three items together in a box, which kills the concept of a platter,” she says. “It is meant to be filled with many different items. You are supposed to have choices. It is meant to be fun.”
But right now, she believes there is no variety.
Variety, and “generosity” as Samar Husain, owner of Pinch & Co, puts it, are definitely some of the significant aspects of developing a grazing board.
“I remember the first ever grazing table that I did was for the Spanish Embassy and it took me about 12 hours to set up the table and we had 13 kilos of strawberries,” says Husain. “It was really lush. I think that’s the essence of what a Pinch & Co grazing board or platter should be.”
Furqan also adds she likes to leave no empty spaces in the platters. “I make sure I fill it with food that is edible and not fillers.”
Meanwhile, Chandani Asfand, who runs a home-based business called Hot Oven By C, says her focus is on ensuring quality of products and hygiene.
“Our prime focus is on using top-notch quality products and to work in a hygienic environment as a responsible person should,” she says. “There is no compromise on the above whatsoever.”
While restaurants and home-based businesses have enthusiastically adopted the trend, are customers as fully on board?
“The biggest ask is for discounts,” says Marri. “People think it’s okay for a home-based business to be expensive but a restaurant should be cheaper because it’s commercial.”
It is worth noting that on average a platter for two costs around Rs4,000 but also goes up to Rs10,000 to Rs12,000 depending on how many people it caters to and what items it has.
Adeel Arif, who runs The Hummus Life Chose Me with his mom, Nasreen Arif, says they wanted to be cost conscious when developing their platters. They became popular for their Halal Guys-inspired platter and also a hummus platter that had three different kinds of hummus and came with pita chips and fresh vegetables.
“When we say our platters serve four people, what it really means is that it will probably serve more people than that, but four people at the very least,” says Arif.
In addition to asking for discounts, customers also have varying expectations from the platters.
“People like to ask for cheese boards but a lot of people here aren’t comfortable with the idea of having cheese on its own,” shares Furqan. “They usually mean the mozzarella cheese that you get in burgers and on pizza.”
A glance on YayyCheese’s Instagram page, shows their platters consist of fruit, cold cuts, nuts and dips etc along with varieties of cheese.
Last-minute customisation requests and cancellations also remain a pet peeve of some of the businesses doing platters.
Husain says, “There are small items in the board but it takes a lot of time to make them. It becomes difficult to move things around on the board when people keep changing their orders.”
For Arif, it is the last-minute cancellations that are the real problem.
“We hate wasting food,” he says. “When people cancel at the last minute (which thankfully isn’t often), it does bother us.”
While platters definitely seem to be the “rage” currently, a few restaurants have also pulled off an “all-you-can-eat” deal in the midst of a ban on indoor and outdoor dining. Tacocat has the deal running on a car-hop situation, with people being served in their cars parked around the restaurant.
However, bar a few notable exceptions, most businesses have primarily marketed a “share box” or a “platter” for Ramazan. With Eid coming up, the demand for platters is bound to show an even bigger uptick as people also seem to be ordering them as gifts. Hot Oven By C is already closed for Eid orders.
Will the trend continue to captivate customers post Ramazan and Eid though?
“It makes for a nice gift but the trend is going to die down,” says Marri, talking about how the platters need to be creatively curated to stand out.
Husain maintains, “It’s hard to make them part of an experience or a performance at the moment because dine-in is closed.”
Regardless of where the trend goes, it is clear that innovation is clearly the order of the day. Rahim from Evergreen is thinking along the lines of more innovative food presentation, while for Rasheed, it will be about adding new things.
“People in Karachi are big on novelty,” she says.
“It takes a lot of work, disasters, endless nights and crying babies to achieve what you want to achieve,” adds Marri. “Be creative and if you are getting inspired from somewhere, acknowledge it.”
Cover photo: Hot Oven By C/YayyCheese/Yummy Mummy And Me