The Karachi Chronicles

It had been a good eleven years since Mahvash Mirza had last visited Karachi, and as a born and bred Londoner, she wasn’t sure if her love for this city would reignite. In an Exclusive piece for FYI, the experienced journalist and former Editor writes all about her Karachi trip. From the great coffee and and organic delights to aromatic Thai Green Curry, divine chocolate and dining by the sea. Get your fix right here!

With all the recent negative media coverage and stories being generated, I was apprehensive about my upcoming trip to Karachi, Pakistan. This was despite ‘following’ a number of high profile Pakistani celebrities via Instagram and evidently seeing that they seem to be living it up. So, why was I continuously being exposed to these ‘horror’ stories about Karachi? The mind was boggled and I, being a risk-taker, wanted to secretly take the plunge; oh how the rebel in me surfaced.  My family were not keen for me to ‘holiday’ in Karachi due to the safety element; we had recently heard about another ‘shooting’ and ‘gunpoint’ incident and this had raised emotions of concern.

Whilst my parents are of the generation that migrated from Lucknow to Karachi at a very young age, they deem Pakistan as ‘home’.  They were also  from that era who grew up and eventually  ‘went abroad’ in seek of pastures greener; my generation, by default, were encouraged to identify themselves as ‘Pakistani’ and now the politically correct term is ‘British Pakistani’. Growing up, there was never any sort of confusion in my mind; I was sure of my roots, culture and identity and learnt to embrace the best of both cultures. I enjoy Mirza Ghalib just as much as I enjoy Shakespeare.

It goes without saying that Hum TV and other Pakistani channels like it abroad, have indirectly promoted Pakistan in the most positive way possible. Via the channel, people abroad are presented with a plethora of talent, beautiful scenery and stunning houses – thanks to the TV serial’s – and this in itself has raised eyebrows; some are envious and some are surprised – but all are extremely impressed. I know this because my Indian friends have fallen in love with our Pakistani artists, their clothes, the settings and the storylines in the dramas. We no longer need to promote Pakistan via the ‘tourist board’ or even ‘word of mouth’.  When I told them that I was planning to visit Pakistan, they urged me to take as many photographs as possible (“Please grab a ‘selfie’ with ‘Mahira and tag us!”) and post them to my Instagram and Facebook pages and to keep them updated.

There is something quite emotional about going back to your own country; a sense of nostalgia kicks in.Memories of my young cousins, my grandparents, uncles, aunts, going on the roof to see the moon, eating chaat (chickpeas with potatoes and spices) and kulfi (Ice-cream made the Eastern way) and all those beautiful breezy evenings of Karachi, for which it is famous, all those memories came flooding back.  As I boarded the Etihad Airways flight bound for Karachi, via Abu Dhabi, I ended up talking to a fellow passenger about my impending visit; that is when I realised that I was immensely excited; eleven years is a long time. A whole new generation would have emerged, the young would have blossomed into this new generation of ‘selfies’ and ‘Facebooker’s’ and the old…I am sure would not be far behind; that’s the spirit of  Karachiites; they are vivacious people. During my flight, (which was one of the most comfortable ones I have ever had, all thanks to Etihad Airways’ hi-tech seats and spacious aisles), I sat and wondered if Schon Circle still existed? Or if Agha’s Supermarket had expanded? Or if Park Towers was still ‘the place to be,’ or if Karachi had any new, unique restaurants?The anticipation was hindering me from taking a nap and I really wanted to catch forty winks before my connecting flight via Abu Dhabi!

My flight landed at an unearthly hour in Karachi. Terrified of being mugged, should I leave the airport at that time, I urged my cousin to wait until daybreak before he came to collect me, but I soon realised that there was not much to do at the airport. Plus, my cousin also proceeded with, “Don’t be silly! It is absolutely fine! We will recite our duas( prayers) for protection.” So I was picked up at 4am (extremely grateful, might I add) and that all-too-familiar Karachi air hit me as I walked outside. That is something that doesn’t change; that air of familiarity, reminiscent of my childhood. I loved it. I was back. And I was going to have an amazing time. A tear rolled down my cheek and I realised that I had really missed Pakistan.

My adventures began with a ‘paan’ – I tried Nutella Paan.  Yes, folks, you heard that right! That wasn’t the surprise though; the actual ‘wow’ moment came when I realised that it had been ordered via an ‘App’ called EatOye! – well, I wasn’t expecting that! Ordering food via an app in Karachi…impressive.The verdict? Probably not something that I would have again as I prefer the original more traditional flavour, however, I would recommend it once, for the love of Nutella! The app was highly impressive and delivery was swift. It came hygienically packaged in a cute pyramid box. The paan was sealed in a foil wrapper accompanied with a napkin and a disclaimer that said ‘not to spit paan’ – rightly so! I was so pleased to see the packaging and the message of social etiquettes that I almost didn’t want to unwrap my beetle leaf.

One evening, I was whisked off to a shopping mall. Now, having lived and worked in Dubai, I wasn’t going to be impressed with ‘another mall’ – but, in life, it is extremely important that we put everything into perspective; look at the context in which it is positioned and presented. Given that, I was blown away with Clifton’s Dolmen Mall! It was clean, modern and spacious and provided the shopper with a plethora of retail options. As I strolled along the mall, I saw an entire café dedicated to chocolate. Back in the day, when I visited Karachi as a child, I vividly recall my parents stashing their suitcases with boxes and bars of chocolate; chocolate, it seems, was a rare commodity at that time, not to mention expensive. A trip to Agha’s Supermarket was the only way to get your hands on some genuine Cadbury’s Milk Chocolate in those days. So, when I saw an entire café just for chocolate lovers, I was ecstatic and impressed, to say the least. I mean, fancy seeing a Butler’s Chocolate Café in Karachi? Butlers Chocolates is an Irish owned manufacturer of luxury chocolate and chocolate products. Founded by Ms. Bailey-Butler in 1932, it has been owned by the Sorensen family since 1959. And the chocolate is divine.  A little bit of Ireland in Karachi. Wow Karachi!

The mall just would not fail to impress. The food court had all the prominent fast food chains, as well as some regular healthier options, but I ended up having the best fish and chips from OPTP. It was the melt-in-your-mouth kind of fish, and perfectly fried chips. I’m more of a flavour –over- spice kind of person, and this hit the spot. There are a number of international retail chains in Karachi: Debenhams, The Body Shop, Crabtree & Evelyn to name but a few. One store really caught my eye, simply because there isn’t one like it in London. This was the Saeed Ghani store; I am a real advocate of all things natural and organic and this was like a playground for me. I picked up Multani Mitti (mud clay mask), rose water, Neem powder (a green leaf good for acne and eczema) and a few other natural powders for the face.  I was also impressed with ‘Agha Noor’ – an affordable clothing line which offered some trendy ‘kurti’ tops, trousers and duppata’s.  Great for gifts. Sadly, my trip to the mall was tinged with sadness. As I was about to leave, we saw the shutters of the Junaid Jamshed store being pulled down; news of him dying in a plane crash had emerged. I was shocked! I grew up with his music and just before boarding I was humming “Dil Dil Pakistan” – this was just so unreal. Life is indeed

Food is a huge part of the culture in Pakistan. There is no shortage of fabulous restaurants and eateries to tantalise the taste buds. From traditional Kulfi set in a clay pot, right through to authentic Thai Green Curryat Fuscia on Zamzama.

In pursuit of some organic options, I stumbled across a delightfully quaint café and food shop called Neco’s. I knew that the days ahead would be filled with some ‘heavy eating’ so I opted for a chicken salad – and it was perfect! But then, I tried their caramel latte and I was blown away! The perfect blend of coffee beans coupled with the ‘fresh’ rich frothy milk, as it should be, tinged with a subtle natural aroma of caramel, was divine.  Great coffee, in Karachi – now that is truly impressive. I would highly recommend this place if you are looking for a good quality nutritious meal. Their desi breakfast made with authentic ingredients was also praiseworthy. Below the restaurant, Neco’s have their shop which is stocked up with organic produce. Neco’s also offers a wide variety of gluten and sugar free breads. This place got the double thumbs up from me.

One evening, I was whisked away to an area near the sea. Here, there were many restaurants dotted along the coastline, each offering a unique menu. I fancied a cup of tea and my cousin took me to Sajjad’s. I resisted a traditional ‘chai’ but then gave in as it was so highly recommended. Once again my preconceptions were shattered  – and I am quite pleased that they were! Made from ‘fresh milk’ – this chai is slowly cooked on a low flame until all the rich aroma of the loose tea is released. It wasn’t smelly or overtly rich, instead it played on my tongue like musical notes in a perfectly composed song. The view from the restaurant was soothing and fishing boats graced the waves.

As the sun set, the coastline was transformed into a glittering and buzzing arena; the air was infused with barbequed aroma’s and even if one wasn’t hungry, their senses would cave in. All food is freshly prepared in a highly hygienic manner. Kolachi is the more popular of the many eateries on offer.  My table overlooked the lit up ocean and it was such a romantic setting.  I normally get feasted on by mosquito’s, but they must have taken care of that as the only feasting that took place, was me eating my tandoori chicken and saag.  I highly recommend their ‘Saag’ – being a veggie lover, this was my favourite dish. If you’re after traditional authentic Pakistani cuisine, with a stunning view, then Kolachi is the place to dine. Book in advance as it is an extremely popular venue.

My friends decided to take me to another popular café called ‘Lal’s. I opted for the Tiramisu (the ones in the UK usually contain alcohol) as I don’t get to have it that often. This café has a classic French Patisserie décor and the overall ambiance also emanated this. With its chequered floor off set against wooden mint- painted fixtures, it looks quite adorably traditional.  It is primarily famous for its chocolates – hence the logo is an appetising ‘chocolate colour’ embossed with ‘Lal’s’ in gold. This is like a little piece of continental Europe in Karachi. The tiramisu was incredibly more-ish and my cappuccino was indeed like an authentic one. All of their cafes are tastefully decorated and present a wide variety of breakfast options as well as light snacks. It is a great place to enjoy some cake and coffee with friends.