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The national gastronomic landscape

Exploring Pakistan’s culinary heritage in a virtual food museum

September 17, 2023
Sajji making on the riverbed near Uthal, Balochistan.


veryone eats, regardless of age, gender, race or religious beliefs. It has always been like that. The earth we inhabit is fertile. It has been feeding humans and animals for a long time. Irrespective of whether one is a picky and impassive eater or a gastronome and food enthusiast, they should be thankful for this. Some people prefer to cook at home; others are constantly on the lookout for new eateries where they might be served authentic traditional dishes, unique flavours and food prepared with the right ingredients. Food inspires us personally and enables a participatory activity. Everyone has a choice regarding food. Some of us prefer consuming nothing but vegetables; others want meat added to their cuisine.

Travelling allows one to explore new dishes and enhances one’s eating experience. No wonder there are coffee table books, recipe publications and websites celebrating food and plenty of museums full of historical archives and artefacts of every scale and kind dedicated to foods and ways of transforming wheat, meat, rice, corn, vegetables and fruits – the global dietary pillars – in diverse cultures.

I am immensely interested in food and museums. When I learnt about a newly curated Pakistan Museum of Food on Google Arts and Culture, I couldn’t resist reviewing the extraordinary virtual project, a brainchild of none other than Pakistani-Canadian journalist, award-winning filmmaker and activist Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy. The unique effort was made possible by a collaboration between SOC Films’s SOCH Foundation and the British Council. The Pakistan Museum of Food is an online space and digital archive devoted to showcasing the rich tapestry of the culinary legacy of the nation through interaction, digital exhibits, interviews, photographs and short films that serve as a sizable library of digital materials.

The prime objective of the project was to preserve the recipes. However, it has expanded to include several tangents during its 48 months of ideation and execution.

Pottery utensils seller Portrait with his cart in Karachi, Sindh.

The museum will encourage the next wave of knowledgeable food producers, educators, and consumers. I remember one of the talks being delivered at BNU by a documentary photographer, Danial Shah – pre-Covid, who went to cover Kunri in Umar Kot, the red chilli capital of Asia. Kunri is famous for producing red chillies of all sorts, incomparable in aroma and taste. It’s great to see a comprehensive visual essay on the town, as many people don’t know much about it and the challenging processes through which the red chilli powder reaches them.

Many factors shape the eating habits in Pakistan, including the varied terrains. Local produce includes rice, wheat and sugarcane in the plains and fruits in the mountains. Cultural practices play a crucial role, with distinct regional cuisines like the rich Mughlai dishes of the Punjab. The topography dictates availability of some ingradients such as lamb and goat in the mountains – central Pashtun fare of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Weather also influences people’s preferences, with lighter dishes favoured in hot regions and richer meals in colder areas. In the south, especially in Karachi, the food culture is exciting due to the abundant and easily accessible seafood. In Balochistan, the staple diets feature dates, wild fruits and vegetables. Coastal areas favour fish-based dishes. The northern region leans towards vegetables and chicken.

Tea is a standard drink that connects all terrains; there is no particular time to consume it.

Tea is a standard drink that connects all terrains. There is no particular time to consume it. However, families and friends gather for evening tea, with a delightful mix of sweet and savoury snacks. It facilitates lengthy conversations, sometimes political debates. The Food Museum reminding one that “we are what we eat.”

Bohra Dastarkhwan, a Karachi-based pop-up restaurant, shares Bohra cuisine’s rich flavours globally. Run by a dedicated couple, it upholds Bohra dining traditions, serving a seven-course meal on a communal thaal. Diners, seated on the floor, eat with their hands. Before dining, the hands are washed in a chilamchi lota. The meal starts with a refreshing tamarind drink sweetened with gur and mint. A paan is rolled in fennel seeds and coconut shavings. It differs from the paan in other parts of Pakistan.

Many inspiring stories have been recorded over time. One can explore the remarkable ten-year-long journey of Almas Parveen, a resilient farmer from Vehari who defied societal norms to nurture her passion and cultivate expertise in agriculture. There are stories of people and places, like Chef AR Jamali from Karachi on a mission to share his deep love for Sindhi cuisine with a broad audience, Captain Saleem from Kemari, one of Pakistan’s most informed seafood experts, famous for his crab dishes. A stimulating story is about Café Thar, an eco-friendly café run by Piyaro Shivani, who not only wants to promote his café but also to turn it into a food institute. For Gujarati delights, Reema Sharif’s kitchen, operating out of her Karachi home, is quite famous.

Red chillies sack in Kunri, Sindh.

Seasonal fruits and vegetables are always a treat. Mango is the nation’s favourite. Sweet treats and refreshing drinks, including kulfi, gola ganda, lassi, doodh soda, rabri and chewy red jalebis, are available in southern and central Punjab. From grandmother’s recipes to contemporary culinary trends, this resource takes a while to explore fully. One may discover delicacies by destination. The journey doesn’t stop here. It continues to the UK with the help of the UK Partner’s Team of WM Legacy. Many South Asian immigrant families in the UK rely on their culture and history to maintain ties to their countries. A majority of these bonds are kept alive through food and traditional dishes. This section contains many recipe videos, which are still intact with Muslim women living in Birmingham and other parts of the UK.

Museum of Food - SOC Films.

Whether through traditional sweetmeats offered during festivities, extravagant wedding feasts with various curries, rice and desserts; or straightforward handmade offerings at mournful funerals, food is a unifying factor, establishing bonds between people. No doubt, love for great food rules in every Pakistani’s heart, regardless of whether it is a well-known restaurant in an upscale area; regional street cuisine on the roadside in the busiest business district; or a straightforward homemade supper prepared by the woman of the house, it’s always celebrated. Therefore, collaborating with Google Arts & Culture, Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy and her team embarked on a culinary journey to uncover the origins of iconic dishes across Pakistan’s provinces, celebrating the nation’s rich culinary and cultural tapestry.

From Gwadar’s tantalising seafood to Multan’s luscious Sohan Halwa and the inventive use of yak meat in Hunza, they traversed diverse landscapes to illustrate how regional topography shapes unique eating habits. Visiting many eateries, Sharmeen and her filmmakers aimed to capture the essence of traditional dining customs while exploring the subtle impact of modernisation on Pakistan’s ever-evolving palate. It’s an impressive effort, not just for the local food lovers but for the rest of the world. Today, food enthusiasts from all over the world visit Pakistan to experience the delicious traditional and regional cuisines and the warm hospitality associated with its people. The virtual museum of food is the most beautiful/ functional repository of the nation’s food travel.

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy - Museum of Food - Photography by Matthre Porsser at Google Arts & Culture.

I still can’t forget the experiments with food photography by a Japanese designer, Kenya Hara, displayed at Design Museum, London, who photographed the staples by putting them against light boxes – genuine admiration upon close inspection. I have been thinking aloud while watching a series on Netflix from India, Raja, Rasoi Aur Anya Kahaniyaan; why don’t we celebrate our culinary past and present and maybe foresee a future? The effort has been chipped in the right direction, and more streamlined ideas and content will follow – fingers crossed. This project was launched at the Google HQ in London on September 12, with a panel discussion. It’s live for anyone to visit, learn and appreciate.

The writer is an art/ design critic. He heads the Department of Visual Communication Design at Mariam Dawood School of Visual Arts and Design, Beaconhouse National University, Lahore