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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Pakistan

WARNING: Terrorist threats continue in Pakistan, please read this travel warning before going!

Historic Diet

Pakistani Food - Kashmiri lamb curry
Kashmiri lamb curry

The land on which Pakistan now sits is home to some of the earliest civilizations and organized farming in the world. This is first a result of the land's fertility and ability to grow crops easily. Before these early civilizations were established, the historic diet of the nomadic people in the region consisted of the numerous fruits and vegetables that were naturally present in the region.

Among the numerous fruits and vegetables that are grown in Pakistan are eggplant, pomegranate, wheat, rice, turmeric, apricot, pistachio, and onions among others. These foods along with local spices and some animals made up the historic diet. Among the animals, the most popular were chicken and sheep which were used for their meat and byproducts. Cattle and fish were and continue to be present in the region today, but fish are limited by geography and cattle were historically too valuable to be used for meat on a regular basis, although they have been used for dairy.

Culinary Influences

Pakistan led the way on many changes to cuisine so outside influences on the local diet are somewhat limited. Despite this, numerous foods were brought in and the diet today has strong reflections of Levantine, Persian, and Indian food.

In early history numerous foods were introduced by the neighboring or migrating people, which changed the diet slowly over hundreds of years. The first great change came with the introduction of Islam in the 600 and 700s. This religion placed dietary restrictions on the people, including the restriction to consume pork or alcohol. Although these two restrictions didn't vastly alter the local diet at the time, they have since given the cuisine a specific direction due to these restrictions and hence were an important influence that has created the diet today.

With the spread of Islam, traders arrived to the region from every direction, but the greatest influences came from the west, including Persia (modern day Iran) and other parts of the Middle East. The Persians later got heavily invested in the Silk Road trade, which resulted in new spices and foods being introduced to Pakistan. Later as power shifted west Levantine foods arrived, again changing the diet. Today significant aspects of both Persian and Levantine foods are quite noticeable in Pakistan.

As the Silk Road slowly fell due to opening water routes between Europe and the Far East, the Ottoman Turks rose to power in the region and influenced Pakistan's diet. The Turks brought yogurt, stuffed grape leaves (dolma), kebabs, and coffee.

In addition to the Turks, the Mughals, and numerous Hindu groups also ruled over the region and altered the cuisine. All these people greatly influenced the diet and today the combined influence of the Indians is ever present. Curries and Pulses are as popular in Pakistan as they are in India and these dishes arose from the influence of both the Indians and Pakistanis. Other foods like naan and rice are also popular in Pakistan as they are in India.

United as one country, the Britain took control over Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh in the 1800s and again left their mark on the cuisine. This influence didn't make as strong an impact as previous influences, but it did open the food up to the world. This not only spread Pakistani food abroad, but also brought in outside foods. Although British foods arrived, it was this opening of the country to world trade that changed the cuisine as today "ethnic" restaurants are popular as are pre-packaged foods. While these foods can be found in many town and cities, they are significantly more popular in the large cities.

Staple Foods

Curry: any "wet dish" cooked in oil, can contain any combination of spices
Naan: thin round-shaped bread served with most meals; sometimes topped with seeds
Pulse/legumes: any bean, chickpea, or lentil dish, each of which act as a staple in various parts of India; dal and masoor are both forms of pulses
Rice: served as a base in many dishes and is prepared in numerous ways
Roti: another form of bread

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Biryani: a spicy rice dish often made with vegetables and sometimes meat
Kebab: spiced meat, usually made from lamb or chicken served on naan with vegetables
Palao/Pilaf: dozens of varieties exist, but it is a rice-based dish usually made with meat and carrots

Dining Etiquette

When eating in Pakistan, remember that you are in a Muslim country and with that comes a couple etiquette rules you must know and follow. First, dress on the conservatively side (see our Pakistan Culture Page for more details). Second, in conservative homes and even some restaurants, it is not acceptable to eat with a person of the opposite sex unless it is your child, sibling, or spouse. While this isn't the rule everywhere and among all company, to some conservative Muslims this is important so observe the local restaurant's situation or your present company and follow their lead. If in doubt, refrain from eating with anyone of the opposite sex who is not a family member (a co-worker for example).

If you get by those first initial rules, try to arrive on time for a meal and if eating in a local's home remove your shoes at the door if others have done so. Greet the elders first, but men should not touch the hand of a woman unless she offers her hand, although you should greet and acknowledge everyone. Let your host seat you and when sitting be sure to keep your feet flat on the floor or pointed behind you as pointing the soles of your feet at another can be offensive; you may be asked to sit on the floor around the dastarkhan. You will also be asked to wash your hands prior to eating; this may mean you wash at a faucet before sitting or you may be asked to sit down then someone will come around with a wash basin so you can wash your hands at the table.

Once the food begins to arrive, and there will be a lot, your host may direct you to certain dishes you should eat; accept all of your host's suggestions as turning down food can be rude (but not taking food that your host doesn't recommend is not offensive). Although you must take all of their suggestions, try to limit the amount you take so you can later accept additional food, which is a great compliment. Many times all dishes are brought out at the same time, but avoid taking desserts or fruits with your entree as these foods are reserved for after the main meal.

Eat as the locals eat; in nearly all settings this means eating directly with your right hand (and your right hand only), but in rare settings you may be offered dining utensils (cutlery), in which case eat in the continental style (knife or spoon in the right hand, fork in the left). If a knife is not present, most locals will hold the spoon in their right hand and eat primarily from the spoon. No matter which utensil you hold in which hand, be sure to only bring food to your mouth with the utensil in your right hand. As you finish your food, and your second helping of food, leave a bit on your plate to show there was more than enough then place your fork and knife together in the 5:00 position. You may be offered tea after the meal and after tea will be offered dessert or fruits, which usually ends a large meal. After everyone gets up from the table, you should again follow the lead of others and wash your hands once more, which again may come from a water basin passed around the table or you may be asked to use a faucet.

Dining in a restaurant in Pakistan is limited as there are few restaurants and most of those that do exist are catered to foreigners. More likely, if meeting a local out, you'll do so for tea at a teahouse. If at a restaurant, a service charge is usually include, which will replace the tip, however at many local teahouses and some restaurants no service charge is included; tip about 10% to the server.

Celebrations & Events

Pakistan has a couple celebrations that are closely tied to particular foods; weddings and certain religious events tend to be celebrated with certain foods. In the center of every Pakistani wedding, other than the wedding couple of course, is the food. The selection is always extensive, but usually is centered around local national foods, the most important perhaps being the presence of numerous sweets. In addition to the wide variety of dessert, the main course generally includes biryani, as well as other vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes.

In Pakistan, Eid al Fitr is known as Choti Eid, which is a celebration that occurs immediately after Ramadan, a religious holiday that requires fasting for 30 days. Choti Eid is celebrated with the heavy use of both meat and oil, two items which symbolize wealth and are rich and filling enough to satisfy anyone who has fasted for a full month. However, these foods are followed with desserts so one must leave some room for more food. The desserts are again traditional Pakistani foods, including rice pudding among others.

The second major religious food celebration in Pakistan is Eid al Adha, which is only celebrated after a pilgrim returns from haj, the mandatory journey for every able Muslim to go to Mecca. Again, this festival contains a large number of traditional Pakistani dishes such as biryani, meat dishes, and desserts; the foods served are not unlike those served during Eid al Fitr.

Drinks

If you want to meet locals in Pakistan, stop for some tea, all the locals do numerous times each day. The tea options vary, but black tea and green tea are the most popular. Soft drinks and coffee are quickly gaining popularity as well and are now very easy to find throughout the country. A couple local specialties include lassi, which is a yogurt-based drink and flavored crushed ice drinks.

As a primarily Muslim country, Pakistan has very little alcohol available, but it can be purchased in some hotels catered to foreigners, although it is banned for Muslims to drink.

The tap water in Pakistan should not be consumed. Be sure to also avoid anything with ice as it may have been made from the tap water. Salads and fruits could have also been washed in the tap water so be careful with those foods as well.

This page was last updated: April, 2013