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It’s feeding time here, all the time

It’s feeding time here, all the time

They are best known for their love of food -- savoury, spicy and delicious -- and always seem willing to go the extra mile looking for a place better than the one they dined at the other day. Eating out is one of the main activities here.

Welcome to Gujranwala, the city of culinary delights, where everyone seems to be in the food business -- enjoying their meals or dishing out a few. It is hard to think of a street in downtown which does not offer up at least a few opportunities to eat. Almost every main street has a cluster of prepared-food outlets at some point.

Gujranwala is also known as the city of pehlwans (wrestlers). It produced wrestlers in the past who won international fame in subcontinental style of wrestling. One of the myths surrounding those wrestling greats of yesteryears was their extraordinary large meals -- that the meat of an average-sized goat or sheep made up one-time meal for a pehlwan. A pehlwan must be able to accommodate several men’s food in his stomach to get as many men’s strength, or so to speak. Although one finds it really hard to believe, the local folklore abounds with similar fallacies about hefty meals.

Today, there are thousands of pehlwans in Gujranwala. This generation of pehlwans does not belong to the arena though. Any man with a bulging waistline is nicknamed pehlwan. The word with a suffix ‘jee’ is the most polite and friendly way of addressing someone in this town. ‘Respected/venerated sir’ would translate in Punjabi as ‘Pehlwanjee’. A sizable tummy also reflects your affluence and social status. These tummy-wielding pehlwans also carry with them an incessant appetite for a good grub, often referred to as ‘roti’ in colloquial Punjabi. They hardly miss opportunities to scoff free meals. On occasions like post-funeral lunch, and ‘rotis’ offered at Qul, Daswaan, Chaleeswan or death anniversaries, they are always one sandwich short, never hesitating to ask for a second, third and fourth helping. The dexterity with which they come out with a clean plate is a treat to watch. (It is perhaps out of tradition that mourners are not provided with spoons with a plateful of pulao).

However, their special ‘skills’ come to the fore at wedding buffets. They are unstoppable after they get going or the roti ‘starts’. Once, two Korean men who were part of a business delegation were among the guests at a wedding in Gujranwala. When the food had been laid out on tables and 200 or so guests got up from their chairs in unison to ‘attack’ the food, the foreign guests took the move for a bomb alert and ran for cover towards exit doors. However, they laughed themselves out when they knew what actually had happened; it was not a security but a ‘roti alert’ which made them run for safety.

It’s said of the folks here that they give up eating only when they get tired. They have a voracious appetite and a penchant for eating. They indulge in eating for the sake of it. They are not bothered even if they feel like bursting at their seams!

There are hundreds of restaurants in the city, both big and small, to meet their ever-increasing demands. Some national and international chain restaurants have also set their foot in here. If you are in the downtown and feel like eating out, you are never on the wrong side of the road and probably don’t have to ask directions. You just need to look or turn around. The billows of barbecue smoke or the clamour of voices will lead you to your desired destination. The sight of seekh kebabs, tikkas and other variants of meat dishes will have your digestive juices going. Now, the choice is yours.

The people in Gujranwala don’t just get a kick out of eating -- they consider their guests one of their kinds and would do all they can to stuff their stomach too, to the point of indigestion! ‘What would you like to eat and drink?’ will be the first thing on your plate after greetings are exchanged, even at dwindling hours of the evening. It is customary and part of good manners to ask your guests, even casual visitors, about food or ‘roti’. You will be subject to severe criticism for your bad manners if you don’t.

A guest in Gujranwala must feel like enjoying a fizzy drink even if he is diabetic. You aren’t supposed to pick a bone with your host on this nor show any sign of reluctance on medical or any other grounds. Just keep your head down and don’t try to convince them that that bubbly thing does not agree with you. And, if you do, you’ll be made to feel like banging your head against a wall with ‘Oh, no, it won’t hurt you’ kind of reply. It should certainly ring alarm bells for you.

Next, the lady of the house you are a guest in will unveil her culinary skills with the best recipes ever taught by her mother, all tried and time-tested. In most cases you are facing Hobson’s choice and must succumb to your host’s will. Your plate will be heaped high and you will be urged for a similar second or third helping. No need to ask, your hosts will join you at the dining table even if they had had their meals. They have a special liking for meals in between meals!

A former federal minister from Gujranwala is said to have asked his son to chuck in his studies after the college canteen food caused him sore throat. The son had never eaten food not cooked in purified butter (desi ghee). However, the son went on to complete his studies and earned an engineering degree from abroad.

There are more than one food streets in the town and a few more are coming up. If you are an early riser and much into breakfasts, Guru Nanak Pura is the best place for you. It can rightly be called the busiest breakfast street in the city. From the traditional naan chanay, halwapuri, nihari, sripaey and hareesa, you will have a wide range of choices.

For lunch, you can visit Rail Bazaar, Guru Nanak Pura and Chan da Qila. The best places for dinners are Kachcha Darwaza Food Street, College Road, Sialkoti Darwaza (BBQs, grilled chiray, batairy, etc), Model Town (National & foreign chains), Chan da Qila, Lorry Adda (especially for Taka taks) and Nowshehra Road.

Published in Dawn, June 2nd, 2015

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