Pakistani attitudes about home cooking are changing as a growing middle class finds a plethora of food delivery options online.

My parents introduced me to paye, a specialty of the Indian subcontinent, when we lived in the United Arab Emirates: slow-cooked trotters, smothered with sticky, glue-like gravy. Only the most dedicated home cooks attempt to make it in their kitchens; the meaty smell envelops the entire house as it simmers overnight. Many people love it. I’m not a fan.

One summer weekend years ago, my parents became overcome with a desire to eat paye the same way people do at roadside restaurants across Lahore: with a steady stream of hot naan, in the company of those you love, on a drowsy afternoon. So we piled into the car with cutlery and a pot of trotters my parents had cooked and we drove to a tandoor for fresh naan. It’s hard to imagine this being a good idea: it was blazing hot, my sister and I were decidedly fussy eaters, and the car wasn’t equipped for a full-on meal. But the love of food makes everyone a bit obsessive.

What is it about food that makes us this way? A craving can drive us over the edge; it can make us walk for miles and in circles until we find that one place that serves the best dessert we’ve ever tasted, for that spice store that has the ingredient for the perfect curry. You see people driven with that desire everywhere—the tourist glued to Google Maps looking for that must-visit bakery; the exasperated cab driver insisting the restaurant must have moved (it’s probably a fro-yo place now).

Fresh Naan. Photo by: Ian Brown

I know, because I’m one of them. Unlike my parents, however, I’m not going to cook up a storm just because I have a craving. Karachiites are increasingly ordering from hundreds of restaurants across the city for that perfect burger or spicy biryani, with a scoop of gelato to finish it off.

Pakistanis order $150 million worth of delivery and takeout annually. Every office in which I’ve worked has stacks of menus piled on someone’s desk. A former colleague used to spend 30 minutes going around the office writing down orders before finally ordering lunch. I’ve been to dinner parties where the food wasn’t slow-cooked overnight, but ordered in. One Friday night, a friend came over to commiserate because we’d had a horrible week. I served her a McDonald’s Happy Meal. On a tray.

In Pakistan when ordering food you can feel like you’re being interrogated.

But ordering food in isn’t all that easy. Remember that scene in Sex and the City when Miranda gets shamed by the Chinese takeout place for ordering the same meal every time? In Pakistan, placing a call for takeout or delivery can be just as frustrating. There’s a routine that fast food restaurants’ call centers have perfected to a science: a series of never-ending questions that will make you wish you’d just eaten cereal straight from the box.

While Miranda felt she was being judged, in Pakistan you can feel like you’re being interrogated. The call center should have my address and phone number on file. In fact, it does. Yet every time, without fail, I have to repeat my name, confirm the city I’m calling from, repeat my address, confirm that the repeated address is correct and then repeat my phone number. But I can’t place my order yet: the call center staffer, sticking to a script, has to tell me about the half-dozen deals on offer, each of which blends into one by the end of the call. “And your drink? With ice? Without ice? Your meal? With cheese? Without cheese? Anything else? Are you sure?” It’s enough to make you wonder if you’ve just suffered memory loss and the call center guy is trying to jolt you into remembering. I once counted how many questions I was asked for ordering a single meal: 11. Then I have to explain the address to the delivery guy, who’ll get lost and will have to call again until I can explain using Karachi’s convoluted method of navigation, naming landmarks and shop signs instead of street addresses.

Biryani, the old-fashioned way, made in Kerala for Eid. Photo by: Big Dubya, used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr

The alternative—other than braving traffic to get takeout—is food delivery websites, one of which hired a stand-up comedian to spoof the call center routine for a web ad. If Pakistanis are obsessed with food, the success of these websites—Urbanite, EatOye!, Food Panda, and KhaoPiyo—is a reflection of what locals are craving and how much they’re craving it. Urbanite, for example, claims to have delivered more than 50,000 orders in the two years since it launched. EatOye! grows by 10-15% each month, according to Jamal A. Khan, whose company Arpatech is the principal investor in EatOye.

The night I ordered the Happy Meals for my friend and me, I placed my order through EatOye! They sent me a text reminding me how much money I’ll need to pay the delivery guy, and that “on weekends, it may take longer [to deliver].” I didn’t have to deal with the questions, or explain the address, or listen to “the brand new offer for 20 burgers for the price of 10!”

Mohammad Imran, a delivery rider for Urbanite. Delivery guys—or “riders”—can make up to $350 a month with their wages and tips combined. Photo by: Saba Imtiaz

“Food delivery” often conjures up images of pizzas and Chinese in cardboard boxes, much like Miranda’s routine order. But in Karachi, people order all kinds of dishes from all kinds of restaurants—from lowbrow diners that sell biryani to fancy French restaurants. Food delivery websites have helped people realize there are more options than McDonald’s or KFC. “People can order from Karachi’s finest,” says Ozair Bokhari, Urbanite’s CEO. A burger from the upscale café Xander’s, for example, doesn’t have a distinct plastic-like quality of a McDonald’s burger but it costs far less than what it would in place like, say, New York. “There have been orders for lobster and escargot, for Italian food,” Bokhari says.

Edgware Road, a Lebanese restaurant in Karachi, is a recent addition to the Urbanite stable. Photo courtesy of Urbanite

The websites also deliver frozen yogurt and cakes and milkshakes and coffee drinks—you name it. Craving a latte instead of the vile brew most offices seem to offer? No problem. Someone will deliver it to you with a freshly baked muffin. Want a pizza instead of whatever same-old dinner your parents have prepared? Check. (Or rather: click.)

Food delivery websites tap into urban Pakistani’s aspirations, their desire to eat good food from restaurants considered hip and trendy, and to eat it in their pajamas. The sites have made food more accessible: no longer do you have to reserve a table a week in advance, vacate it far before your friend has finished telling you that delightfully gossipy story, or travel halfway across town. While most upscale restaurants prefer to ignore the middle class by opening up in areas where public transport is limited, food delivery websites have tapped into a much bigger market. Bokhari says the orders his company receives are not just from Karachi’s most upscale neighborhoods, Clifton and Defence, but from a growing number of middle-class neighborhoods as well.

Urbanite, through The Cakery, offered cricket-themed cupcakes for the world cup. Photo courtesy of Urbanite

Arpatech’s Khan has found the same. While residents of richer neighborhoods may have more disposable income, orders are coming in largely from middle- and upper-middle class neighborhoods. “There’s a very high level of traffic from there,” he says.

The people tracking real-time activity on Urbanite and EatOye! arguably know the customer better than the chefs do. They can see what customers are ordering, what pages they’re clicking through, how much time they take to decide what to order. This scares me a little: I’m not sure how much I want someone knowing how long it takes me to decide if I want or salad. They can also pin down exactly what time of the day the hunger pangs start. At EatOye, sales on Monday have been consistently slow. (Perhaps people are recovering from the Monday blues?) Khan says sales peak on Tuesday, slow on Wednesday and jump on Thursday and Friday, and then again on Sunday. Urbanite’s peak hours are 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. for lunch orders, and then from 6:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. for dinner. “You don’t have time to breathe,” Bokhari says. “It’s just orders upon orders.”

Restaurants, meanwhile, have had to adapt to keep up with the boom of online orders. The success of the delivery websites is tied to that of the restaurants: they’re not just helping deliver a new customer segment, but offering advice to restaurant owners, compelling restaurants to improve their kitchens, and passing on feedback, good and bad. As the middlemen between the kitchen and a customer’s stomach, the websites face the brunt of complaints on Twitter and Facebook, everything ranging from the quality of food to whether it was delivered on time.

A smoked salmon club sandwich, offered via Urbanite from Xander’s, an upscale cafe. Photo courtesy of Urbanite

Urbanite and EatOye! have already helped make successes out of delivery-only restaurants, such as Eat Fit, which offers healthy salads and sandwiches for those counting calories. “It’s a niche product and a startup,” Khan says about Eat Fit. EatOye! gives Eat Fit “the ability to get above the noise, to punch above their weight.” Takeaway and delivery-only places—including a plethora of gourmet burger and “New York style pizza” joints that have flourished in Karachi in recent years—are able to function because they don’t have to worry about fielding calls from hungry patrons and can concentrate on the kitchen.

But more money and more orders mean more problems, which the websites and kitchens are working to fix together. Those uninitiated to the delivery business had to suddenly deal with orders going out left, right, and center. It meant learning how to package them right. As one of the first to get into the online food delivery business, Urbanite had to deal with the initial onslaught of complaints. Food arrived spilling out of containers. Pizzas folded over en route. Coffee sloshed out of cups. Bokhari says they sat down with restaurant owners and worked on improving containers and lids, and now entrees don’t drip with oil.

The booming business of online delivery says a lot about how Pakistani attitudes toward home cooking are changing.

Khan and Bokhari rattle off the benefits of ordering food online: it’s easier, it can be cheaper because of online deals, there’s more choice and less hassle. It also has a lot to do with how people’s lives have changed, from urbanization to a family dynamic that includes two working parents. Throw in neighborhood gentrification that has turned once-sleepy residential areas into hubs for cafes, shisha joints, and, yes, fro-yo shops, and the $150 million figure begins to make sense. My neighborhood alone has a half-dozen bakeries, a fast food place, a barbecue restaurant, a 24-hour juice stand, and a snack bar.

And I don’t cook. I learnt when I lived abroad, using recipes my father would email and often calling him in a panic when I burnt food or couldn’t figure out how to trim fat. But I get too stressed when I cook, my father’s kitchen organizational system makes no sense, and I rarely enjoy cooking for other people. Even my father—who has been cooking for over 45 years and always claimed that he could replicate any restaurant dish at home—now often tiredly announces he would rather order in.

The booming business of online delivery says a lot about how Pakistani attitudes toward home cooking are changing. And perhaps, had these websites existed in the 1990s, I wouldn’t have been stuck in the family car that hot summer day. Perhaps we would have ordered the naan online instead.