Travelling across Pakistan not only broadens one’s horizon with respect to depth and variety exclusive to the Pakistani culture but also enriches views regarding the many region-specific practices
Over the last decade or so, I have visited and resided in more than 65 cities and villages across Pakistan. From Khunjerab Pass to Chaman border, from Fort Derawer to New Majak village and everything in between, you name it and I have been there. Travelling through Pakistan comes naturally to me. The dozens of journeys that I embarked upon in this country, not only broadened my horizon with respect to depth and variety in the Pakistani culture but also enriched my views regarding region-specific clothes and food. Commuting from a dozen Pakistani airports, a few railway stations, a number of bus-stands and using taxis, rickshaws and many other means of transportation, I have been fortunate enough to have come across a number of city-specific gifts and collectable souvenirs unique to an area.
Some of the souvenirs are well-known and quite accessible, especially food items since Pakistanis are food-loving people. It is unusual for someone coming from Lahore not to be in love with that famous qulfi or a certain brand of paye or karahi. On the way to Wagha border, one may consider devouring that notorious glass of paira lassi. While Karachiites swear by their beloved brands of Dehli-style nihari or biryani, the capital provides you with the signature tin-box full of biscuits from that a specific bakery located in Blue Area, not to forget a certain brand famous for its low-priced pilaf and Shami kebab. But then these cities and their mouth-watering delicacies are perhaps too mainstream.
When you travel by road, you pass by a number of stations, with roadside carts and kiosks bustling with people selling local produce and handicrafts. The price of these things will often be less there than their prices in a high-end store, as there are no middle-men involved in the sales. It is a win-win situation for both sellers and buyers.
Pakistanis are considered a meat-loving people, not entirely a false view, however, one of the most loved eatables that you may come across in the country is halwa, a dessert or a mithai (sweet). Halwa remains one of the most popular gifts – with some regional variations – in almost all households in Pakistan.
The most well-known variety of halwa comes from Multan. The local sohan halwa has always been on the must-buy list of everyone who visits the country. There are a number of brands including Hafiz, Rewari, Ahmed and Abdul Wadood known for the popular Multani sohan halwa. Traditionally, people commuting between Karachi and Islamabad via train, get themselves boxes of Hafiz Sohan Halwa from the Multan railway station. However, the unmatched fame and reputation of Hafiz Sohan Halwa has provoked many an opportunistic seller to copy the brand. Multan is, thus, filled with hundreds of Hafiz Sohan Halwa shops, literally on every intersection in the city. A few streets are lined with shops with the same brand name and identical decor. Needless to say, most of these are neither authentic nor original and just reaping the benefits of illegally using a brand’s name, developed over decades.
The craving for halwa is equally prevalent in the people of Dera Ismail Khan, a city that lies at the crossroads of three provinces of Pakistan. The halwa in DI Khan is sprinkled with a variety of herbs and dry-fruit to provide customers with a range of options to choose from. All the shopkeepers there are keen to let you taste a sizeable quantity of halwa along with a cup of qehwa (green tea) as a part of their hospitality. Another sweet, dhoda is a must-have if you visit Khushab.
Traditional weddings in the Chakwal region that generally take place at sunrise – once the farmers are done with the ploughing – have halwa as one of the main stars of the menu for the guests. It is prepared with great attention to detail, laden with dry-fruits and colourful ashrafis or murabbay, specially made by chefs who may come all the way from Telagang or other adjoining areas. Chakwal’s more famous souvenir, though, is a brand of local rewri (white disc-shaped fudge) that is consumed throughout Pakistan, especially during winters.
At an hour’s drive from Chakwal lies Khewra, with world’s second-largest salt mines. The souvenirs you can get there – especially vases, which are a hit among tourists – are made of salt, and are available in white and pink.
Varieties of traditional dry cakes of a certain bakery in Hyderabad are a must-have souvenir for visitors, however, they are being given a tough competition by the local matka rabri (a milk-based sweet). Hyderabadi glass bangles are also extremely popular all over the country. Plain cake is a takeaway if you are visiting Larkana where you can find a number of gorgeous bakeries from last century. Pickles from the Shikarpur market are a huge hit among many families. The market is lined with a number of shops selling unimaginable varieties of pickles. Just behind this market, is a vast area where these pickles are prepared in broad daylight.
It is unusual for someone coming from Lahore not to be in love with that famous qulfi or a certain brand of paye or karahi…. While Karachiites swear by their beloved brands of Dehli-styled nihari or biryani, the capital provides you with the signature tin-box full of biscuits from that specific bakery located in Blue Area, not to forget a certain brand famous for its low-priced pilaf and Shami kebab.
Further down in Sindh, you will find handicrafts known as hala and bed-sheets popularly known as ralli, with their unique geometrical designs and loud colour combinations. You can find them just outside Sukkur in an area known as Tehri, with prices ranging from Rs 500 to Rs 3,000 depending upon the size of the sheet, its quality and the level of skill involved in its making. It is a close variant of khais (a light blanket) which is specific to Multan and Faisalabad regions.
In the Faisalabad region, you cannot miss the Chinioti mutton kunna and, of course, the amazing woodwork and furniture market of Chiniot with unparalleled skill on display. Gojra, a small city in the same vicinity offers a brand of barfi (sweet) and mouth-watering pakoras (fritters) along with a unique thick condiment. These pakoras are almost as popular among Pakistanis as the famous pakoras sold near the Ilyasi Masjid in Abbottabad.
Fruits are also sold on the roadside all over the country. From juicy apricots and tasty plums in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa (KP) to dates in Khairpur, from kinno and oranges of Layyah and Bhalwaal to grapefruits of Biriya, Sindh, all varieties of fruits are sold on all the major highways in the country, thanks largely to Pakistan being an agricultural country. Banana is a staple when it comes to fruits being sold in Sindh, so is the bell-shaped guava as you move towards Larkana and mangoes if you are near Rasheedabad or Mirpur Khas. Fresh, juicy strawberries will force you to take a break and park your car in Malakand and you cannot miss the walnut bags in upper KP. You may come across apples – including the famous varieties such as gacha, gul-badan – in Quetta, Kalat, Qila Abdullah and Pishin, being sold at a third the prices in other provincial capitals. You may find locals in Gilgit selling salajeet and honey, which they claim have been extracted by bees from local blueberries.
Jaggery (gurr), either plain or loaded with fruit, vegetables or dry-fruit, is sold by roadside sellers all the way from Bahawalpur to Rahim Yar Khan especially at Channi Goth and Khan Bela. Similar roadside sellers of gurr are also found from Multan to Dera Ghazi Khan making gurr, i.e. cooking the juice extracted from sugarcanes harvested in the adjacent sugarcane farms while you watch. Most of these roads are likely to be lined with carts selling freshly caught fish prepared and fried with local herbs – especially if near a river, dam or barrage.
Another popular local soughaat (souvenir) from southern Punjab is Khanpur’s milk-based sweets pairay and khoya. A variant of khoya named doodh maisu with a little more ghee is popular in Sadiqabad. Yet another variant is mahipasand from Tandlianwala, some 50 kilometres from Faisalabad.
Pakistanis’ general obsession with lighter skin tone helps improve the general sales of Multani mitti, used by many. However, it is the kashikaari work on ceramics, especially in different shades of blue on kitchenware and vases, that lures tourists into buying these for themselves and their loved ones, to cherish forever.
As with halwa in Multan, the Takht Bhai chapli kebab shops are scattered throughout the KP. Chapli kebabs from Taru Jabba, Swat, Mardan, Balakot and Peshawar are a notch above the rest.
Costumes including shirts, shoes, caps and waist-coats are often derived from local traditions and vary from province to province. These souvenirs are easily accessible at almost every restroom stop on highways from Sindh to KPK, to the Punjab to Gilgit Baltistan. Hunza caps are, indeed, the most popular and unique takeaway from the region. The price of these warm caps significantly increases with the number of feathers attached to the cap and sometimes also depends upon the flying altitude of the bird to which the feather belongs. One may also opt for a matching shawl. Located just before China, on the Karakoram Highway, Sost boasts a versatile market with a variety of Chinese products from across the border for tourists.
The best aspect of these souvenirs is that these items are mostly high quality and available at very reasonable prices. Often when you return home, you realise that you should’ve purchased a lot more.
The writer is a physician, health care leader and a traveller. He tweets @Ali_Shahid82