Rice, Fat, Meat, Streets

Why does biryani mean so much to so many people on the Indian subcontinent? The answers may be found on the streets of one of the world’s food capitals: Karachi.

Rice, Fat, Meat, Streets by Ahmer Naqvi; Illustration by Akshaya Zachariah for FiftyTwo.in

Biryani may be one of our most famous dishes but Pakistan is pulao country. In each of the regions that make up this land, the less elaborate dish has historically been more popular. But there is one place where biryani reigns: the city of Karachi.

It was brought here by migrants from India, people who would come to be called Muhajirs. In the decades that followed, it took on a life of its own. In Karachi, biryani shed its fidelity to tradition that continues to define it in India. Neither the conventions of regional recipes nor the haughty refinement it sometimes embodies across the border matter here.

Biryani is Karachi’s premier street food today. It can be eaten on the go, without any accompanying bread or curry: it offers convenience as well as the luxury of grand flavours. It’s also affordable, because in Karachi there is no such thing as a good plate of biryani that’s expensive.

This city is a notoriously misunderstood place, layered and flecked with all the subcontinent’s flavours. Artists and academics have tried to explain it through contradictions: a city of “ordered disorder”; “a confluence of exhausted geographies.” [1]

Even our countrymen view the city very much as outsiders see Pakistan itself: a violent and chaotic place, best avoided. But we Karachi natives have a different perspective. Much like digging into a deg or pot, of biryani reveals layers of rice, meat and spices, scooping up biryani’s history reveals the ethnic, social and cultural foundations that make up this city.

“Dekheyn,” one chef put it, “Karachi jiddat wala sheher hai. It is a city of innovation.” The people here, he said, “are total all-rounders. Those who work here know how to create jiddat”—how to innovate—“so you can understand biryani itself as a form of jiddat.”

“Dekheyn, Karachi jiddat wala sheher hai. It is a city of innovation. The people here are total all-rounders.”

Mehmood Mian

The most popular theory about biryani in Pakistan is that it was brought over to the subcontinent by the warlords who became the Mughals. The second-most popular is that it was introduced by their predecessors from Central Asia. The third is that it developed after interaction with Arab traders along India’s western coasts. Some have argued that the dish developed independently in the north and south of India, splitting the origin between interactions over land versus those over sea.

Common to all these is the view that biryani was born out of some origin-defining interaction with one religious group, Muslims, even though all these societies were distinct from one another. Biryani history now repeats the colonial folly of viewing South Asian history as a series of distinct, religiously defined phases.

We’ll come back to that. First, eat a biryani somewhere in Karachi to learn something about the neighbourhood it’s from. In a city whose history and identity shifts with every generation, migrants and settlers continue to assert their own identities via the plates of biryani they make.

Al Mustafa Thaal Biryani
Outside Bambino Cinema, Saddar


ambino is Italian for baby. The owner of Bambino Cinema might have named it after his child, who was a young boy when it opened in the 1960s and would, 50 years later, become president of Pakistan. Now the cinema hall owned by the family of Asif Ali Zardari is, much like Pakistani cinema itself, in a state of dusty disrepair.

It is one of many such crumbling buildings in the Saddar area, the commercial heart of Karachi. For nostalgists, Saddar represents the peak of Karachi during what was effectively Pakistan’s Gilded Age. For millennials and younger people, Saddar’s appeal lies in that it has, to some extent, resisted Karachi’s propensity to devour its past: in other words, the retro buildings and architectural styles look good on Instagram.

Every Friday, as the vast market area comes back to life after having shut down for jumma prayers, a Suzuki pickup pulls up next to Bambino. It’s instantly surrounded by a crowd of customers: they are here for the multiple degs of biryani piled in the back.

The leader of these operations offers only one reason for why this biryani is incredibly, uniquely famous. “The point of selling it once a week is to create talab”—desire—“within people,” Mustafa Hamdani said. We spoke on a weekday outside his regular workplace, a fast food restaurant and catering service. In between instructing his workmen on how to stretch the limits of the latest Covid protocols, he narrated the history of his jummay wali biryani.

Before he started his Friday Suzuki runs, Mustafa used to deliver parcels of his biryani around the Saddar area. But there were too many complaints: the meat had gone cold; there wasn’t enough meat; the masalas were too heavy or too light. One day, fed up with this unpredictability, Mustafa loaded up three degs, drove to the centre of Saddar and began to sell on the spot. Word began to spread, particularly because biryani already has a strong association with Friday, a pious and celebratory day. Soon, Mustafa’s Suzuki-hauled cooking, exclusively available for a few hours every week, had created the kind of hype normally associated with pop-ups in Manhattan.

There was a time when much of my nightly internet viewing was just shows that celebrated chefs, mostly male and Western, as artists trying to perfect their craft. I wanted to see Mustafa’s motivation to serve the best possible plate of biryani as the work of a serious craftsperson. But he didn’t allow me to entertain such views, and declined to describe his biryani as something special. Friday and its inherent barkat, blessedness, is the primary reason for the biryani’s popularity, he insisted.

He refused to even describe what type of biryani he makes. “Some people call this Hyderabadi biryani, others describe it as Gujrati style,” he said, unassumingly. “Someone claims that you find a similar biryani in Sukkur.” [2] He had more to say about the people of Karachi themselves.

“There is a lot of the masala-loving community in our Karachi,” he explained. “The people here like their food to be chatpata. Non-Karachiites may eat our food with a lot of relish, but soon after, their system goes out.”

Mustafa had just described one of the great schisms of Karachi’s biryanis from those in northern India. While the biryani’s subtlety is considered essential to its sophistication in cities such as Lucknow, in Karachi, it is a fiery dish, way hotter than mild pulaos and tehris. It was down to something about the city itself, Mustafa thought: a spicier taste, evolving out of Karachi’s cosmopolitanism.

“The people of this city are rangeen,” he said. Colourful. “We were born here and from our childhood onwards we have seen raunaqein,”—brightness—“we’ve seen mohallas and buildings, compounds and chawls, all these different places where people from every community tend to merge into each other, you get me?”

But Mustafa was also a Karachi cynic. “We are a people who’ve become used to eating dou-number food. By dou-number I mean chemicals, acids. Our masalas have synthetic flavours that temporarily give great fragrance. They entice people who think, okay, I’ll eat this. I’ll check it out.

Abu Mian Cooking Corner and Sheermal House
Hyderabad Colony


y 1921, the academic Laurent Gayer has written, half of Karachi’s population was made up of residents who hadn’t been born here. This was just over a hundred years after Sindhi merchants developed it into a city. Three decades later, after Partition and a refugee crisis changed its demographics wholesale, [3] its population had tripled: now only a quarter were born Karachiites. [4]

In this time, many housing schemes targeted at wealthier refugees sprang up, offering shelter to people from vastly different parts of India, [5] seeking to preserve community integrity amongst regional elites in the new country. These included Delhi Colony, Bangalore Town—and Hyderabad Colony.

Home to many members of the erstwhile Deccan elite, Hyderabad Colony went on to provide several prominent administrators, bureaucrats and politicians for the new nation. In 1974, when Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto tried to burnish his global credentials by hosting the second summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, it’s said that one of those officials asked the most famous caterer from his old hood to fly to Islamabad to serve biryani at the event. [6]

That man, called Abu Mian, arrived in Karachi in 1954. His father was a craftsman who decorated swords for the last Nizam. After a family quarrel, Abu Mian ran away from home and began to work in a famous Hyderabad hotel. There, he mastered the city’s highly specialised cuisine, and was ready to set up shop when he arrived in Karachi.

Eventually, his sons Mehmood and Ahmed [7] took over Abu Mian Cooking Corner. They estimated that their father trained around 200 chefs personally; 2000, if their students were counted. This formidable legacy reflected in the food. Of all the biryanis in this story, it remained closest to the traditional style. Much like the biryani, Hyderabad Colony itself retained some of its early defining characteristics: its iconic achaar shops; unique street foods; the tailor who could still cut sherwanis in the Nizam’s preferred style.

Mehmood spoke of Hyderabadi biryani with reverence. “Those who don’t understand taste, they think that if their mouth feels on fire and their fingers are covered in oil, they’re having biryani,” he explained. “Array, biryani is the sort of dish that you can keep eating. Your stomach might fill up but your heart won’t.”

The distinct Hyderabadi style is milder than Karachi’s varieties, and forgoes the essences and food colouring. “See, Hyderabadi food is very delicate and sophisticated,” Mehmood said. In his kacchay gosht ki biryani, he uses saffron, milk, crushed almonds and curd—ingredients you won’t find in the city’s other variants.

“Biryani used to be counted amongst royal dishes, but when it came to Karachi, it ended up in a thela, a cart.”

Ahmed Mian

The kaccha gosht or raw meat style is the signature element of the Hyderabadi biryani, the meat marinated for a day and cooked solely in the dum of the biryani. It is what makes this biryani unique, but it is also why the Hyderabadi style remains somewhat insular. (Several establishments in the colony offer Hyderabadi style biryani, but it’s hardly found elsewhere in Karachi.)

As the popularity of biryani grew, it began to need quicker turnarounds in cooking times, something that didn’t favour the Hyderabadi style. “Biryani used to be counted amongst royal dishes,” Ahmed said, “but when it came to Karachi, it ended up in a thela, a cart.”

This remark was delivered more as fact than with any bitterness. The brothers balanced pride in retaining their culinary traditions with genuine appreciation for the average Karachiite’s palate. Ahmed, in between attempts to convince me to marry, explained, “Aapke sheher ko Allah taala ne God Gift diya hua hai”: Allah gave your city a god-gift. “The people here are discerning. If they go to eat cholay, they will take pains to select the best place. If they go to have paan, they will pick a good shop. Not every city has this quality.”

Ghausia Nalli Biryani


he haphazard post-Partition neighbourhood of Liaquatabad, further north, couldn’t be more different from pre-planned Hyderabad Colony. It was named after the assassinated Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan, but it’s popularly known as Lalukhet, because it is built on agricultural land that used to be owned by a Hindu farmer named Lalu. [8] The migrants here arrived from every part of India. Over the years, the area has also become home to minorities from other parts of Pakistan.

To get to Ghausia, you abandon all vehicles several hundred meters beforehand and walk over a palimpsest of asphalt, layers of once-repaired roads wiped out by Karachi’s notorious urban flooding, burst sewers and general chaos. Then, you ignore the aggressive soliciting by the waiters at the copycat Nalli biryani shop right opposite. [9]

When you first see Mohammad Saqib, the main chef and owner, you might do a double take and wonder if you’ve landed in Lahore’s Old City. Much like Lahore’s famed Kashmiri Butts, who can be seen manning stoves serving hareesa and paye, Saqib was a large, moustachioed, garrulous figure. Hearing him speak was like listening to an AI-generated SEO script. Every adjective-strewn sentence is liberally peppered with the phrase ‘Ghausia Nalli Biryani.’ Sample: “Today, across the world, Ghausia Nalli Biryani is recognised as the number one Pakistani dish.”

To give Saqib his due, his biryani was a spectacle. Nalli is bone marrow, and at his shop I saw degs with preposterously large cow bones piled on top, dyed in deep yellow hues by the masalas. When I ordered a plate, Saqib retrieved a freshly cooked bone and scooped out the glistening, gelatinous fat from within. It landed in opaque hunks on the hot rice and dissolved near-instantly. (There’s a reason Ghausia is easily the most popular of all Karachi biryanis on social media.)

Saqib’s father came from Fatehpur in India. He worked in several industries before choosing to get into food, making use of family recipes. But his son was quick to point out that the nalli biryani is purely a Karachi invention. [10] “There’s no added oil or ghee, which makes it different from every other biryani,” Saqib said. As far as I know, this is genuinely unique. The crux of biryani is meat, fat and rice brought together. By using a broth instead of a curry, the fat comes entirely from the meat instead of oil, allowing the meat’s flavours to truly sing.

Perhaps this conceptual innovation was indeed created in Karachi. But the robustness of this flavour is also down to a specific kind of material innovation: the biryani masala packet. Obviously, its most influential version was created here.

Shan Masala
Phase V, Defence Housing Authority


ne of Karachi’s most evocative phrases are the non-specific words “bridge ke uss paar,” the other side of the bridge. It refers to the metaphorical divide between the haves and the have-nots, but its physical manifestation is thought to be any of the several routes into Karachi’s Defence Housing Authority (DHA), an elite enclave and one of the first of the Pakistan Army’s enormously successful forays into real estate.

One evening this past winter, I found myself in a large house in DHA, where I met a man—grey beard, pink cheeks, soft voice—who told me about a death at a wedding in Lahore in the 1970s. That tragedy kicked off a series of events that changed the history of biryani in Karachi, and therefore, the world.

Sikandar Sultan’s mother was a Kashmiri married into a family from Delhi. She’d brought with her the Kashmiri practice of creating tikyas—sun-dried patties—from a blended paste of masalas: ground ginger, garlic, and so on. When it came to cooking a dish, the tikya was reconstituted in water. Before leaving Karachi for a wedding in Lahore, she made enough tikyas to last a fortnight but a sudden funeral delayed her return.

Her husband was a gourmand who’d installed multiple stoves around the house: no fewer than three outside the kitchen. When his children cooked something he liked, he gave them gifts. In his wife’s absence, he asked his children to take over cooking duties. It was then that young Sikandar was recognised as a special talent by the family. 

Building on his mother’s tradition of creating spice mixes, and learning from the experience of sending those to his sisters who moved abroad after marriage, Sikandar Sultan launched Shan Foods in 1981. Shan’s masalas ended up having an inordinate influence on biryanis world over, but particularly in Karachi. If you ask the city’s biryani-walas to name the types of biryani you can find in the city, you’ll hear: Delhi-style, Hyderabadi, Memoni or Gujarati, Sindhi, Bombay. The last two, as far as I could discover, are actually inventions of Shan Foods.

The biryani scene in the city was quite different in the early 1980s, Sikandar said. He counted three main varieties from the time: the lightly-spiced zafrani style from Delhi; a ‘wet biryani’ associated with the Kathiawari and Marwari communities; and the Hyderabadi style. “My wife is from Bombay,” he said, “so we made Bombay Biryani out of my love for her.”

As a romantic gesture for a spouse, I thought, it was an act second only to Shah Jahan’s. It was also an insight into his process. From early on, Sikandar and his family would profile the kind of people who’d like their blends. “We served endless people the same dish over and over again,” Sikandar said. The Bombay Biryani, which Shan Foods claims is an original variant and not like any version of biryani you find in Mumbai, was developed from the style cooked at Sikandar’s in-laws’, and then tested endlessly on them until it was perfected. [11]

Similarly, the Sindhi biryani masala was inspired by the style of pulao made by the Sindhi workers at Sultan’s factory. Shan’s Memoni mutton biryani masala is developed from the Akhni pulao made by Gujarati-speaking Bantva Memons with their origins in Junagadh; their fish biryani masala riffs on recipes from Parsis and Aga Khanis.

All this research indicated that Shan were custodians of tradition, Sikandar Sultan claimed. He knew, of course, that there were pitfalls to standardising recipes. You can lose a legacy’s worth of culinary styles when a masala is put in a packet. “But the cost in terms of losing legacy comes at the cost of a woman’s freedom,” Sammer Sultan, Sikander’s millennial daughter, and co-chairperson at Shan, [12] pointed out. The advent of boxed masalas had drastically reduced the time required for traditional cooking.

I understood what she meant. My mother is one of many Pakistani women who has an intimidating sense of taste and belief in her own cooking skills, and Shan has long been a staple of her kitchen cabinet. Shan’s ‘packet masala’ also integrated seamlessly into her Panipat-born mother’s famed qorma recipe. Packaged masalas dramatically transformed kitchen work for women like her. In trying to preserve the traditions and tastes of biryani, Shan’s little boxes helped manifest more innovation, more jiddat, into biryani itself.

Al Fareed Pakwan Center
Maskan, Gulshan-e-Iqbal


he street food in the area referred to as Maskan, opposite the sprawling Karachi University campus in Gulshan-e-Iqbal in the city’s north, is no longer the hidden gem it used to be two decades ago. Nowadays, famous traditional restaurants and Karachi chains stand cheek-by-jowl with international fast food franchises and their local copycats. Among them is a small biryani shop unfailingly frequented by university students. Welcome to Al Fareed Pakwan Center.

Imran Bashir, currently in his late thirties, was a teenager when he first came here from Jhang in central Punjab in 2001. It was a time when Karachi was gingerly recovering from the horrific inter-community violence of the 1990s. (A reprisal of those troubles, in the 2010s, was a few years away.) An energetic man, with hair so luscious and flowy that he should have been a fast bowler, Imran landed his first job at a restaurant where the owner took great pride in his work. He started off winning wagers for being the fastest to chop vegetables, and ended up as the owner of the restaurant. When it shut down, he opened his new shop in Maskan in 2010.

“Nutmeg, mace and cinnamon are the lifeblood of a biryani. If you can master these three, you will become the king of this line of work.”

Imran Bashir

“I might have been born in Punjab,” Imran said, “but the place that pulled me up in life and helped me stand on my own two feet is Karachi.” This, like a lot of things Imran said, seemed straight out of a script for the model immigrant, but his love for Karachi was real. “I like to call Karachi the hub of all food. I've been to Faisalabad, Lahore, Islamabad, Hyderabad, but you find the authentic versions only in Karachi,” he said. “You can take pulao, karhai, any dish that you can think of—you find its original recipe in this city only, nowhere else. And biryani; biryani is Karachi’s saughat: Karachi’s gift to the world.”

Imran spent almost a decade learning how to make biryani at his previous job. Then, he spent another two years perfecting the recipe he serves today. (He set up his own poultry shop to control the quality of meat.) “I have taken a mix out of the Delhi, Bombay and Sindhi styles of biryani,” he told me. “We use certain aromatic ingredients that give ubhaar—make the flavours prominent. When you eat it, you genuinely feel: I’m eating a biryani from Karachi.

There are no visible clumps of masala in Imran’s biryani. He decided to blend condiments as powders or pastes after he noticed customers were picking out whole-cooked pieces. (No scope of biting into the universally dreaded whole elaichi at Al Fareed!) Imran is a great student of biryani, lyrical on the matter of spices. After a lengthy and detailed discourse, he settled on three favourites. “Nutmeg, mace and cinnamon,” he said. “I consider these to be the lifeblood of a biryani. If you can master these three, you will become the king of this line of work.”

I told him it sounded like what he enjoyed was garam masala, whose ingredients one doesn’t automatically associate with biryani. “You can’t be heavy-handed in your usage of these three spices,” he insisted. “You know how they say when you can sense something from afar, but your brain can’t quite decipher it precisely. That’s how you need to use them.” In the perfect bite, he said, you should get a fleeting, ineffable sensation of the spices at play.

As we spoke, Imran dropped many examples of his craftsmanship. (“I can tell you whether the biryani is ready just by looking at the density of the smoke billowing from the deg.”) It became clear to me that Karachi’s lack of a definitive biryani style had opened the doors for innovators like him. The new migrants’ jiddat was constantly embellishing the gift of the old guard. Some of them even came from much further afield than Punjab. 

Malang Biryani and Pulao
West Wharf


hen Naseeb Rahman (street name: Malang), a large Pashtun man with a 400-watt smile, went to buy rice, the seller compared a short-grained variety to Ali, the fourth Caliph in Islam, famed for his exploits in war. “Ali was a short man,” he said, “but he had no equal when he descended on the battlefield. This rice is like that.”

Malang’s biryani shop is in West Wharf next to Kemari port, surrounded by industrial sites and smoke-belching 18-wheeler trucks. Unlike Punjabi migrants, Pashtuns are a lot more visible in the city, particularly in the transport and food industries. Their cuisine, unlike other non-Muhajir food, is also ubiquitous across the city.

It’s an imprint shadowed by staggering violence. Karachi has witnessed at least three eras of severe conflict between Pashtuns and Muhajirs, most recently at the start of the 2010s. So a Pashtun man cooking a Muhajir dish in an area historically populated by Karachi’s indigenous populations—Sindhis and Baloch—is perhaps one indication of how the city comes together in a mixture of violence and assimilation.

Malang described himself as a wicked man, citing his youthful love for smoking hashish. He repeatedly told me that financial greed was his only motivation. It was also clear that he spent a lot of time thinking about the perfect biryani.

“In every person and every ingredient, you need to find quality,” he told me. “First, I find a good person, and only then do I decide to touch the market. For example, the milk I source for my yogurt: I’ve found a milkman who feeds biscuits to his cattle. The milk that emerges from those buffalos has a unique, rich taste.”

He told me an anecdote about the time he was dismayed by the rising prices of nutmeg and mace in the city’s premier wholesale bazaar, Bolton Market. It pushed him to figure just how much these flavours influence the eventual taste of the biryani. “So one day, I individually boiled each of these spices in water,” Malang said. “Then I tasted the water to see what specific flavour they provided. After that, I created a formula based on how much flavour I wanted from each spice. We don’t base anything on estimates.”

We were talking just outside his self-designed kitchen space, complete with bespoke utensils. I was enthralled by the kind of preparation and commitment that went into creating a dish cheap enough for dockworkers to afford. Still, amidst all the passion and humour, I sensed Malang was grappling with an existential crisis. In one breath, he bemoaned that his younger brothers and sons lacked the discipline to run the show. In the next, he conceded that any sort of drive was pointless, since all that mattered was the soulless task of making money. [13]

What Malang really needed, I thought, was a bit of validation for what was clearly his artistry. Perhaps he needed to be told that he was chasing not just money but something beyond, valuable in and of itself—creative excellence, jiddat.

Cafe Sindh
Khadda Market, DHA


here is a vast ocean of people on one end: people who once lived here, people who were evicted from their lands, people protesting the displacement of the working class. On the other end, owned by Pakistan’s most powerful civilian, [14] there are shiny, tacky, faux-Dubai style structures headlining the most notorious land grab [15] in Karachi’s chequered history.

Karachi was always a city of migrants and transit. While some of this has been gradual, a lot of it has been violent and either accepted or sanctioned by the state. The city’s indigenous Sindhi and Baloch communities, as well as the larger Sindhi population in the province, have often found themselves at the sharp end of this displacement. In this coastal capital of Sindh, you’ll struggle to find any Sindhi restaurants. There’s barely any seafood [16] amongst its thousands of eateries serving cuisine from the plains of northern India and the mountains of Pakhtunkhwa.

“When it comes to biryani, the dish that people call Sindhi Biryani is not one I recognise, because there is no such thing as an authentic Sindhi biryani,” renowned chef and Sindhi cuisine promoter A.R. Jamali told me. This essentially confirmed what I had heard from Sikandar Sultan of Shan. “In reality, this dish has come from Bombay,” Jamali said, while dating its emergence roughly back to the same time as the first Shan version.

“I am thinking of replacing potatoes with lotus stem in my biryani. Now that would make it an authentic Sindhi biryani.”

A.R. Jamali

Now, he said, Sindhi biryani was defined by many of the features common to Sindhi cooking: the liberal usage of hara masalas versus the restrained use of garam masala, the inclusion of tanginess via dried plums, focusing on a khatta-meetha (sweet and sour) combination rather than a fiery-spicy one.

“You will find American, Italian, barbecue, all sorts of things here but the basic Sindhi cuisine, the type you find in villages, you won’t find here,” Chef Jamali said. “This is why I am doing the work I do.” Currently, he runs a cafe in DHA’s Khadda market that’s changed locations twice due to the pandemic. He makes regular appearances on TV and posts Sindhi cooking videos on YouTube. His work is imbued with a palpable sense of pride in his syncretic identity, a trait that often stands out amongst Karachi’s indigenous communities as compared to its more insular migrant ones.

Jamali sought to embrace the biryani on his own terms. “You see, now if something has arrived and become popular, then we will also try to improve it and make it better,” he said. “For instance, I am thinking of replacing potatoes with lotus stem in my biryani. Now that would make it an authentic Sindhi biryani.”

Mahigeer Jheenga Biryani
Ibrahim Hyderi


he author and journalist Nilanjan Hajra is one of the few people who has consulted primary sources in his quest for tracing the biryani’s evolution. In an article published in August 2018, [17] he referenced the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, which mentions a dish that “should have rice cooked with the meat of a vigorous bull or one more advanced in years” and was to be eaten “with clarified butter.”

Hajra also outlined how subcontinental food kept building on this recipe through the eras. In Aimperum Kappiyangal, the five Tamil epics written between 100 and 1000 AD, the dish called ‘oon soru’ added more flavours to these three basic ingredients. From centuries later, Hajra noted, “there is documented evidence that a dish, with five distinct varieties, was being cooked in Shah Jahan’s imperial kitchen, which without an iota of doubt was the immediate precursor to today’s biryani.”

All of these built off the first, fundamental combination of rice with fat and protein. In essence, Hajra’s argument is that the biryani evolved across the Indian subcontinent rather than arriving from the outside. Rather than giving credence to north-south quarrels or origin debates between coasts and heartlands, it made more sense to view all of it as part of one long process. 

On the coastline of Karachi, in what was once a small fishing village from which the enormous city emerged, I came upon the true consequence of Hajra’s theory. Fatima Majeed is a tall woman with a soft face. She is a formidable activist and the senior vice-chairperson of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum. She is famed for taking on the politicians of her area, and was reportedly the first woman from the coastal region to contest elections.

She is also a treasure trove of information on the culture of Karachi’s original indigenous population: its fisherfolk. There are very few places in the city where you can find the cuisine of Karachi’s fisherfolk. For instance, there’s no restaurant that serves prawn biryani the way it is made here in Ibrahim Hyderi, where Fatima lives and where all roads lead to the ocean.

It’s a balmy, overcast day in July, and we are sitting in her autaaq, a few hundred meters away from a vast mosaic of blue and teal-painted wooden launches in the port. Instead of cricket, the few playgrounds in the area are occupied by football games.

Fatima explains the defining characteristics of the local biryani as I take notes: imli and tomato for tanginess, fried red onions as garnish, prawns. Then she says something intriguing. Karachi’s fisherfolk version of the biryani is so old, she feels, that it was invented here itself. “We haven’t just been eating biryani since our childhood,” she said. “Even my grandfather remembers having it when he was a child. Similarly, people affected by climate change, who’ve moved to Karachi recently from other parts of Sindh’s coast, have also been making prawn biryani forever.”

I ask her what she thinks of Sindhi biryani. That’s different, she says: the cuisine of the coastline has always been distinct from that of the heartland.

Karachi itself is named after a woman from the fisherfolk community, Mai Kolachi. She is linked to multiple legends, but in each she appears as a brave and resilient woman taking on forces greater than herself, whether searching for her husband Sanval in a terrible storm, or helping her son Moriro defeat a sea monster that ate his brothers. Today, few Karachiites are aware about this aspect of their city’s legacy. Mai Kolachi has been relegated to the name of a road leading to the port.

Fatima’s story made me think of Hajra’s thesis of biryani evolving over various places and eras in the subcontinent, influenced by the myriad of cultures that swept through it. In this view of the world, biryani can authentically be a jiddat of Mai Kolachi’s people. Having left these shores a millennium ago, having travelled across the des, the vast homeland, and learnt its many lessons, Karachi is where it returns to find its most transcendent form. Biryani is the beloved that has finally returned home, to the city that rejoices, revels and rejuvenates itself in its love.

Ahmer Naqvi is a freelance writer and journalist. He writes on popular culture and tweets as @karachikhatmal. 


First of all, thanks to the almighty, boys played well. My unending gratitude to all the chefs I spoke to and for the generous way they gave their time. A huge thanks to Zahra Malkani, whose idea this piece was to begin with. 

Lots of gratitude also to Zahra Fatima Ali and Salman Naqi for their help in tracking contacts, and to Khalid Sherwani, Mohammad Zaid and Rida Lodhi for their help with transcribing several hours of interviews. 

And finally, thanks to everyone who fights for biryani and/or Karachi culinary supremacy on social media—*in LeBron James’ 2016 Finals voice*—this is for you.