When travelers talk of visiting Pakistan, they often mention Lahore due to its reputation as the country's food capital and Mughal architectural history. This singular focus comes, however, at the expense of many other historical cities, such as Peshawar, Multan, and—just adjacent to Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, on the Potohar plateau in northern Punjab—Rawalpindi, my mother’s hometown and a culinary hub in its own right.
The region’s history spans thousands of years: Rawalpindi fell within the ancient state of Gandhara, a major center of Buddhism, and is a short driving distance to many Buddhist ruins. Much later during the Mughal era, Rawalpindi split time under the indigenous Ghakhar clan allied with the Mughals, as well as Sikh rule, before coming under British occupation in 1849. Since then, Rawalpindi has acquired the reputation of being a "garrison city." It was first home to the British Indian Army and, following the partition of India in 1947, the General Headquarters of the Pakistan Army.
The thing is, Rawalpindi's reputation as a military town belies its rich cultural heritage. Prior to Pakistan’s creation in 1947, Rawalpindi hosted a diverse population that included Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, and Sikhs. This religious and ethnic diversity is evident in the city’s old neighborhoods, which host historic gurdwaras mosques, temples, and, of course, its own cuisine.
After 1947, Sikhs, Hindus, and Jains left Rawalpindi for India and were replaced by Muslim migrants from Delhi and cities and villages in Eastern Punjab, such as my maternal grandparents’ birthplace, Ludhiana. Rawalpindi underwent another demographic shift following the creation of Islamabad, the country’s capital next door, during the 1960s. This sped population growth, bringing in new residents from the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province and other parts of Punjab.
The city’s layered history is reflected in its fascinating culinary landscape, encompassing Anglo-Indian flavors found in the club sandwiches and tarts at high tea; folksy Punjabi treats such as andrasay, sweet rice flour balls traditionally served at shrines; rich Mughlai dishes like nihari, a sharp beef stew brought over by migrants from Delhi; or Pashtun food, such as salted lamb, at the city’s various Shinwari restaurants.
While it is difficult to explore the city’s history in full, a short visit to Bhabra Bazaar can provide a thrilling glimpse into Rawalpindi’s rich cultural and culinary heritage. Prior to 1947, Bhabra Bazaar was a predominantly Jain neighborhood: The word "Bhabra" directly refers to the wealthy Jain merchant community who would live in the Bazaar and trade in nearby markets. While their mansions (havelis) are now in poor condition, you can find traces of their wealth in the overhanging decorated balconies and skillfully crafted wooden doors. Bhabra Bazaar also hosted wealthy Sikh businessmen, including Raj Bahadur Sujan Singh, whose towering, albeit dilapidated, haveli in the neighborhood is a key pull for history and architecture enthusiasts.
The narrow, winding alleys of Bhabra Bazaar will lead you to the Rawalpindi food street, Kartarpura, as well as the adjacent historical markets, Moti Bazaar and Sarafa Bazaar. Even though the city has changed drastically in the last 72 years, the Bazaar’s alleys can provide an inkling of what the city’s food scene might have looked like a 100 years ago. Food vendors in small carts sell a mix of popular street food and snacks that are becoming increasingly difficult to find in other bigger commercial areas of the city.
Given the intricate layout and history of the neighborhood, I find that the best way to enjoy the Bazaar is to have no destination in mind. Take your time exploring the alleys and snack along the way.
Here’s what to look out for:
Both in Bhabra Bazaar as well as on the nearby street of Kartarpura, you will find a line of shacks serving the classic Punjabi breakfast, halwa puri. It comprises halwa, the silky semolina pudding prepared in ghee, and cholay (or channay), chickpeas in a spicy, tangy sauce laced with pickle, that are to be mopped up with puri, a deep-fried bread. While it’s common to get the breakfast for takeout, you can also grab a small table at the tiny Sufi Jee Nashta House.
A classic South Asian snack found across the Indian sub-continent, dahi barray (also known as dahi vada or dahi ballay) are fried lentil dumplings folded in a gently spiced yogurt and topped with a sweet and tangy tamarind chutney and crispy wafers, or papri. You can find a wonderful sweet variation of it at La Jawab Dahi Ballay, which sits right outside the alley that leads you to the famed Sujjan Singh haveli.
My favorite culinary highlight at Bhabra Bazaar, personally, is the range of sweet and savory tea snacks. You will find the popular, highly delicate semolina shortbread biscuit, nankhathai, being served straight out of a tiny anghiti, a traditional brazier; bakar khani, a crispy flatbread that traveled from Central Asia to what is now Dhaka, Bangladesh before spreading to the rest of the subcontinent; freshly made pheni, fried vermicelli dunked in either tea or milk. While some of these can be found at bakeries in major commercial areas, there is a special joy in watching them being made right in front of you.
Especially popular during the Muslim religious holiday, Eid al-Fitr, kheer is a rice pudding that emerged in the Muslim kitchens of the subcontinent. You can pick a clay plate from one of the vendors pushing down a cart or from one of the small shops in the Bazaar. The kheer in the neighborhood is famous because some of the shops serving it have existed for over 70 years. They don’t add preservatives or artificial ingredients and make it in small amounts so they can continue to sell it fresh.