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A Pre-Dawn Daal Fry in Karachi

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KARACHI, Pakistan–

I hear the thick sound of sticky dough being rhythmically slapped into parathas—an oily, fried flatbread—before I see the hotel. The neon sign for Karachi’s Juna Masjid Malabari Hotel is next to a beautiful mosque with dainty turrets in pale washes of yellow and green.

Juna Masjid Malabari Hotel is a neat little chai shop. (It is referred to as a hotel even though it has no guest rooms.) Inside, there are shelves and glass cases filled with sweet and savory snacks. Despite the early hour—it is almost 4 a.m.—there are at least 20 people inside. The buzz of animated conversations filters out into the pre-dawn darkness.

The chai shop is in the heart of the Lyari, a neighborhood of one million people between the seaport and the historic Saddar area of the Pakistani capital. Yellow stone buildings built a century ago under British rule dot the area.

Getting to the neighborhood was not easy—just a few years ago, Lyari was a “no go” area because of gangs and politically motivated violence. At 3 a.m. I found myself on the back of a motorcycle, clinging to the driver’s shoulders, trying not to fall off as the bike hopped over a speed breaker. No rickshaw wallah was going to agree to take me to Lyari at that hour. The chai shop’s signature dish, daal fry, is prepared early in the morning and I was hoping to get a fresh plate and catch some of the regulars.

After having lived abroad for seven years, I have a little more than a trace of an American accent and I am still in search of a place to settle in Karachi, getting by in temporary apartments. I feel like a stranger in the city where I was born. But I am returning as journalist, and there’s no better way to get to know a place than to write about it.

On my way I saw a blank billboard emblazoned with the words “TO LET,” advertising only the opportunity to advertise on it. I remembered that my face had once looked down on the intersection from that same billboard. It had been my first big modeling job, a lifetime ago.

Back then, daal chawal (rice and lentils) was a diet staple because it kept my weight down. Since coming back, I’d heard about a variation on the dish being served at the Juna Masjid Malabari Hotel. Searching for a way to feel at home again, I knew that daal fry, a recipe served with hot, fried parathas, was a delicacy I had to try for myself.

Daal has neither the fancy Mughal airs of Biryani nor the aspirational cachet of fast food. In its basic form, it is a simple food of lentils cooked in ghee (clarified butter), with turmeric, garlic, cumin seeds and blackened onion sprinkled on top. “Daal roti,” or daal with bread, is used in local vernacular to denote a life sans frills. In the afternoons, daal and rice is sold on street. A plate can cost anywhere from 20 to 50 rupees, roughly 50 cents. Bank clerks in loosened ties and laborers in their worn, discolored kameez can be seen eating by the roadside.

This ubiquitous South Asian dish comes in many forms. I think of the Hyderabadi daal my father used to ask my mother to make for his return from long flights as a pilot for the national carrier—a thick, rich central Indian variant of the dish. I think also of the simple, soupy daal I used to cook on rainy days in New York City.

On the ride over, all was quiet, even the rustle of leaves of the neem trees could be heard. I mentioned it to my friend, Zain Ul-Abideen, who was driving the motorcycle. “It is peaceful,” he said. “But not too long ago, there was a war here. This place looked like Beirut.” As the motorcycle turned the corner toward our destination, two paramilitary soldiers in fatigues watched us warily from behind a nest of sandbags on the corner of the intersection.

Most of the people at the hotel are rickshaw drivers and factory workers who live in the area returning from a night shift. At the table next to me, four young men are wiping their plates clean. The server brings them greby (perhaps derived from the word gravy), a complimentary extra serving of curry offered by the hotel. The greby is used for dipping the last bits of paratha.

The adjoining mosque brings in worshippers returning from their early morning prayers. Outside, under the dim streetlight, I glimpse a group of women walking past. They are wearing heavy chadors that cover them from head to knee. They are Baloch women returning from a wedding. It seems unlikely they’ll come inside; these establishments are largely the domain of men. The men walking with them stop inside for a last celebratory meal before wrapping up their night, along with the wedding band.

Abdul Qadir, 79, who owns the hotel with his brother-in-law, 77-year-old Mohammad Moosa, overseeing renovations at the hotel. Photo: Annie Ali Khan

“This is the best time to be here,” Mohammad Shakeel, the leader of the wedding band, assures me. He has been playing the dhol—a long, double-headed drum—since he was 13 years old. Shakeel and his troupe sit together at a nearby table, distributing the day’s earning over cups of tea.

The others refer to Shakeel as ustaad, or teacher, an honorific reserved for those who have mastered their instrument. He and the senior players enjoy a full meal, but the junior players, as is the custom, are offered only tea. “Every time we perform at a wedding, we come here for a meal or chai afterwards. The food is fresh and the chai will be sweetened with gurr [molasses] instead of white sugar.”

Abdul Qadir, 79, owns the hotel with his brother-in-law, 77-year-old Mohammad Moosa. Qadir has gray hair and matching silver spectacles. His potbelly is visible under the loose shalwar kameez that covers his small frame. In 1948, the 12-year-old Qadir was sent by his father from Kerala in India to Karachi, to help run the hotel his uncle had established years before.

During the gang wars, Moosa was hit by a stray bullet while closing the shop one night

It was the first time Qadir had ever left his hometown in the Malabar region, in the south of what became India after the partition. When the British departed in 1947, the new borders they penciled in on the map became a reality. Millions had to choose between living in India or Pakistan in the largest migration in history. The Malabari community has long-established roots in Karachi, dating to well before the partition. But the changing economic conditions and a deteriorating law-and-order situation has led many to leave. Those who still have ties in India see returning as a viable option, despite having to leave behind all they’ve built in Pakistan.

Business at the Juna Masjid Malabari Hotel suffered through years of escalating street violence in Lyari. During the gang wars, Moosa was hit by a stray bullet while closing the shop one night. He didn’t tell his family, fearing they would have insisted that they migrate back to India. He and Qadir are among the last few remaining; too old, with too much here, to think of leaving. They are optimistic, though. The recent calm in the area has started bringing in more people, especially Sunday crowds.

Breakfast arrives on my table in a rapid succession of plates. I’m having chai with the food; the sweet tea is stirred with brown melted molasses. The qeema—spicy ground beef—has been cooked in tomatoes and onions. But it is the creamy daal that has my full attention. Fried onions, soft and brown, fleck the surface along with a smattering of green chilies and toasted cumin. It’s aromatic and it takes me a moment to register that the fragrance is of whipped butter that glistens in the thick base of yellow and red lentils.

My fingers burn as I tear into the paratha, which is layered in thin swirls that wind around all the way to the center, unfurling in moist pieces. I begin to dip the paratha into the daal when my friend Zain stops me. He takes a piece of paratha and shows me the correct way to enjoy the daal.

Following him I wipe the piece of paratha in a sweep near the edge of the indented metal plate with two fingers and my thumb, picking up a thin layer of daal, and lifting it to take the first bite. The garlicky taste of daal mixes with the crispy paratha. The dish is warm and gooey—deeply comforting. My fatigue melts away. The butter flavor lingers in my mouth and I wash it down with thick syrupy tea.

I was expecting oil or traditional ghee, a quintessentially desi touch. But here was daal cooked unapologetically in rich butter. Daad Mohammad, an 80 year old server who grew up coming to the restaurant, tells me the butter was a common ingredient back in the days of the British—a novel addition that drew customers to the hotels.

The Malabari Hotel has been using the particular brand called Karachi Butter for the past 50 years. Mohammad shows me the sticks of butter in white wrappers behind the counter. It looks like a shelf in a supermarket aisle. And it strikes me how different it is from the daal I’m used to eating.

I thank my friends and pay the bill. The daal, qeema and paratha cost less than $2. The chai was less than 15 cents. My stomach is full from the heavy paratha. It is morning outside, and I hail a rickshaw home.

Annie Ali Khan
Annie Ali Khan is a journalist from New York via Karachi, who has written for The Caravan, Tanqeed, Marie Claire and the Express Tribune. She tweets @pakistannie. [Photo by Madiha Aijaz].
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