Motorbikes racing by, the call to prayer playing from the local mosque around the corner, the aroma of spices, meats, fresh fruit, perfumes, and vendors shouting prices in Urdu in all my peripherals. Serene chaos. Finally - a place where no mainstream travel guide or tv show can spoil the novelty of firsthand experience in foreign lands - Peshawar, Pakistan. I’m very grateful for whatever catalyst had set me off with an affinity to travel, especially with the emphasis on food, but never did I think I’d be 37 kilometers from the border of Afghanistan in Pakistan, about to dig into some of the most tender meat I’ve had in my life.
As an American, I noticed a reoccurring trend when I permanently left the states: I was wrong, about a lot; whether it was misconceptions, ignorance, or solely not being aware of different elements of life - that course-corrected itself as I got to see individuals and cultures far from mine in day-to-day life. However, nothing showed me how wrong and/or unaware I was of the world as quickly as Pakistan. The South Asian Islamic Republic is the fifth most populous country right behind Indonesia, and one of the world’s most ancient civilizations expanded in the present-day region. It features a diverse, rich history, drawing from Iran & Afghanistan in the west, the partition with India via British colonialization, and the country’s position with its neighbor and economic backbone - China. All of these geographic elements and their impacts on the republic can be explored through the many exclusive foods found solely in each region of the country.
I didn’t know much about Pakistani food ahead of time, aside from dishes found in the Punjab region as they’re commonly categorized only as “Indian Food”. After some new friends gave me the rundown of what constitutes typical Pakistani food, I’d come to understand that my trip throughout the country will feel more like exploring the cuisine of four different countries. While so much of the cuisine to me was novel and incredibly delicious, my time in Peshawar and a spontaneous dinner at Nisar Khan Charsi Tikka holds its reigns as my most memorable meal, albeit one of many. I also learned, that most of the cuisine in Peshawar stems from the Pashtun culture and strays further from Pakistani cuisine. More on that later.
I had arrived in Peshawar, dropped my bags off at my hotel, and immediately dived into the bustle of Namak Mandi - the area of town which felt like one large open-air bazaar. There were general stores, bakers, butchers, electric stores, hundreds of street food stalls, a wide variety of restaurants, and tea shops lining the jam-packed streets of people, motorcycles, and the occasional donkey (still commonly used for transporting goods there). I had truly felt like I teleported to a different planet. At the least, my senses were so hyper-stimulated that they may as well have been on one. I walked around, camera in hand, following the aroma of different food from every stall, storefront, and tandoor oven that lined the main street. It was hard to walk more than a minute without strangers welcoming me to their city, offering me a cup of chai, and asking me what I’m doing here. At this point of the trip, I’ve drank enough chai to hold me over for the rest of the year, so I had to politely refuse many of these invitations. To respect the Islamic customs of the city, I was dressed in the traditional shalwar kameez, the day in and day out outfit of the people of Pakistan. While I had no problem wearing shorts and having exposed tattoos in any of the other cities of Pakistan - Peshawar was one of those places that had an unwritten rule that foreigners must follow the traditions. The payoff? Authentic charsi tikka meat.
In Urdu, Charsi means “smoked” or “smoke” and “tikka” refers to “pieces of meat” in both Pakistani and Indian cuisines. As I meandered around the city - it seemed that everyone was selling charsi tikka. That must be the go-to here! I got lucky and during my urban exploration, I met another foreigner, and to note, this was the only foreigner I’d see for the next four days or so. After chatting about photography and some of our travels, my new friend Kit and I had come to the conclusion that we were both hungry. “I’ll take you to a great place, let’s go!” he told me. “Yeah - it’s good?” I asked. Kit mentioned that he’s been in town for four days, and this will be his fourth time eating there. He’s tried the others, but Nisar Khan reigns supreme. That’s enough to convince me.
We arrived at Nisar Khan Charsi Tikka and before you get to the front entrance of the restaurant, the smell of meat grilled in streetside stalls and storefronts envelops the whole block. Nisar Charsi Tikka only serves three things:
We walked by the chicken sajji beautifully arranged in a circular formation over the coal pit, and into the front entrance - which puts you in the “butcher shop” part of the restaurant. Here employees are armed with cleavers, dissecting and butchering the fresh lamb meat that makes its way into the two dishes. My theory has been the fewer items that are on a menu at a restaurant, the more attention and thought goes into those items, resulting in more quality and consistency in the final product. This was the epitome of that; other charsi tikka restaurants in the area had added a variety of dishes from Khyber & Pakistani cuisines to their menus, but Nisar Khan has stuck to their three dishes for over 50 years.
Sitting down and ordering was easy - one of everything. I was informed it would be a 45-minute wait since everything is made from scratch.
“Well, it already looks like it’ll be worth it, so the wait can only add to how great it’ll taste”, I thought.
As my new friend and I were chatting, longing for a cold beer after a day of urban exploration in the extreme heat (but this can only be a dream in the most conservative part of a dry country), we were approached by some locals that ran through the usual questions: “Welcome to Pakistan! What are you doing here?” “Are you enjoying the country, what do you think?” To this day I still don’t have a great answer to the first one, as I travel to learn more about places far from my own via food, but enjoying it? - Yes we were.
The gentlemen began telling us how from the days of the hippie trail in the 70s, leading up to the time right before 9/11, Peshawar was a busy and active tourist destination. Pakistan is home to some of the largest and most beautiful mountain ranges in the world and hosts many hikers, mountaineers, trekkers, and those looking to soak in Pakistan’s natural glory. The political instability in Afghanistan during the 80s & 90s had not deterred visitors from basking in Peshawar’s historical offerings, but that had all changed in the new millennium. Post 9/11 Pakistan’s tourism dropped, and to this day had barely recovered. Peshawar has long been on the receiving end of Afghani refugees for over fifty years, displaced by the political instability across the border. The acts of terror that plagued the city for many years have created additional safety and economic hardships for the residents. But today, the vision is hopeful, the charm of one of the oldest South Asian cities is present, and being there, I felt safe (and hungry!)
Alas - the food arrives. First comes our chicken sajji, with a salt-based marinade still sizzling from the heat. The flavor is simple, salt and pepper, with more subdued notes of ginger and garlic. The juices run through the tender meat, and I bask in my favorite type of food - simple food. Before I can dig in too much, the lamb karahi and charsi tikka make their way to the table. The common theme? Simplicity. The charsi tikka is seasoned only with salt and pepper, with the quality and freshness of the lamb providing the main burst of flavor. The lamb karahi gains much of its flavor from cooking in its own fat, but also sits in a curry base of tomatoes, chilis, a hint of lemon, and is full of the typical South Asian spices: cumin, garlic, ginger, pepper, and coriander. The final result of this meal? A trio of meats - highlighting both the simplicity and prominence of flavor from this unique region of the world. As I ate, it made perfect sense why Kit had no problem indulging in this for the fourth day in a row. There is no place in the world to experience this, other than Nisar Khan Charsi Tikka in Peshawar, Pakistan.
Reflecting back on this experience, I look at how I came to an unknown place hoping to learn about one culture and their food, only to learn that I’ll be taking in a completely different culture’s food and customs. I was able to dig into some of the best-tasting lamb I’ve had in a while (maybe in my life?), but with that came the “why” element of how I’m eating Afghanistani cuisine in Pakistan. It’s not a pretty picture with lamb skewers in the foreground and rainbows & butterflies in the background, but rather the stark reality of our world. I’m in a place that has been heavily affected by the realities of war and conflict. This culinary experience provided a bridge into the reality of those affected by events I’ve only seen on a news channel; a meal that bridges the gap between I as an individual, and we, as humans on this earth.