If you're vegetarian in Pakistan, not only are you looked upon like some sort of alien being, but your options to eat out are pretty limited. This becomes painfully evident come Bakra-e-Eid.
While I don't eat a lot of meat myself, I don't have the same dietary restrictions as somebody who is off meat completely. So it was only when a friend of mine turned vegetarian a few years ago that I really noticed the dearth of vegetarian options available at 99% of restaurants and cafes. Even most salads will have chicken in them! We are a nation of meat-eaters and vegetables are often relegated to second-class status.
There are some cuisines, though, where non-vegetarian fare really shines. I decided to take my friend to Karam Lebnan, a charming Lebanese restaurant on Islamabad’s Parveen Shakir Road with seriously good food. It’s homely and feels more like a family dining room than a restaurant.
There’s something for everybody here; the main course section of the menu has some delicious kebabs and grilled items to choose from. However, you can make a complete vegetarian meal out of the cold and hot mezze menu.
Mezze comprises of starters and snacks, and one of the things I love about it is that it is meant to be shared. Mezze spreads are common across Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and North African cuisines, and are a key feature at Iftar during Ramadan. Order a few mezze dishes, and you won't even realize how much you’ve eaten while you nibble away as the fresh pita bread keeps on coming.
In Lebanese cuisine, eggplant features prominently, as does spinach, and fresh vegetables in various salads. Other standout items include cheeses, yogurt, beans and pulses, and lots of lemon juice and olive oil.
First things first, I always order a plate each of hummus, a dip made with pureed chickpeas, and mutabbal, a creamy roasted eggplant dip, before I even look at the menu. This kind of meal encourages a relaxed and leisurely pace; order a couple of mezze dishes, get started as the warm pita arrives, and slowly take your time deciding what else you want to order.
If you like eggplant as much as I do, you could also order baba ghanoush, another smoky eggplant dip where the vegetable really takes center stage. I also like to order fattoush, a fresh garden salad with crispy pieces of pita bread and just the right amount of tangy dressing.
Grilled halloumi is another firm favourite; halloumi is a chewy cheese, somewhat like cottage cheese in density, but quite salty so it may not be everybody’s cup of tea. I really love falafel as well, perfectly spiced chickpea patties, fried and served with a tahini sauce.
I sometimes like to order za'atar as well, if I want a little something special instead of plain bread. Za’atar is spice mix made with sumac, thyme and sesame seeds, which is mixed with olive oil and spread on pita bread.
Out of all the kababs to choose from, the Kabaab Khiskhash are my absolute favorite. These lamb kababs are perfectly seasoned and incredibly flavorful, served with a smoky intense tomato sauce and, oddly enough, french fries.
All the desserts listed on the menu aren't always available so check with your waiter to see what they have that particular day.
Kitayef, a cheese-filled pancake, fried and then drenched in fragrant syrup, paired with a strong cup of Turkish coffee is the perfect way to end the meal in my book.
A taste of Lebanon at home: an easy hummus recipe
If you like hummus, you don't need to head to a restaurant to get your fix. It’s incredibly simple to make at home. It’s great as a dip or as a spread on toast. Hummus also makes for wonderful salad dressing, mixed with some yogurt or more lemon juice.
2 cups cooked chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
2 large garlic cloves
6 tablespoons tahini (sesame seed paste; available at most grocery stores)
4 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
4 to 6 tablespoons cold water
Add all ingredients, except water, to a food processor.
Turn the processor on and add water, a tablespoon at a time, until you have the consistency you like. I normally add all 6 tablespoons as I prefer a thinner consistency.
Taste and add more salt if desired.
To serve, drizzle some olive oil over the hummus and sprinkle some black pepper or paprika on top.
Cover and store in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.