In my early 30’s I got a job in Lahore, which required me to move out of my parent's home in Karachi, and live on my own for the first time. I’d visited Lahore several times over the years, but this would be my first experience of living on my own. In Pakistan, it used to be pretty rare for single women to move out, though it’s becoming more common now.
I embarked on a journey of self-discovery, to quote Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. My physical health was in shambles; I wasn’t eating enough, smoking and drinking too much, doing every manner of drugs known to man. A rite of passage - of late nights, parties, and instant noodles - it was my college years, except I was in my 30’s.
The basic life skills I’d never had to learn in my sheltered life, I took to like a fish to water; cooking and fixing things around the house, sticking to a budget, managing life more or less. Like Magellan I was charting new territory, visiting parts of my host city, Lahore, that I’d never even heard of before.
Anarkali, the food street of Lahore, was one of those places. It’s named after a courtesan prince Salim (Jahangir) who fell in love with over 200 years ago. Anarkali and Salim, their love story was the stuff of legends and folklore. When Akbar, the king found out about the affair, he was having none of it! On his order, she was sealed within walls, where she eventually died.
Some historians claim she was a transwoman. Whether Akbar was a transphobe or an elitist, he was not someone I’d want to associate with. I think we can all agree that Akbar was a bigot and their love story deserved a better end. Anarkali was buried near this street, her tomb is close by.
Since she was a dancing girl, it stands to reason that Heera Mandi, the red light district of Lahore back in the day, is close by as well. They had literal red bulbs lighting up the streets, this is where all the ladies of the night used to live.
The entrance to the food street is a giant archway, intricate and bright green, it welcomes you to the gastronomic night of your life! Fairy lights are strung up in a delightful criss-cross, and gorgeous, colorful apartment balconies look down on you as you enjoy your meal.
Most of the food is very meat-focused, so if you’re a vegetarian, you’re most likely going to have to settle for some Dhaal or palak paneer, but hey. I’m not complaining.
Meat lovers can have their choice of food from barbecue to haleem to paaye to nihari to biryani and everything in between. The tandoor will throw fresh, sizzling hot naans your way. This little food street has a socialist system at work, where your waiter will get you anything you order from any of the many restaurants and vendors that sell there. Profits are shared.
Dessert can be anything from a hot gulab jamun, dripping with sugar syrup to kulfi, a frozen milk ice cream, kheer, a rice pudding, or even cotton candy.
You can end the night with a delicious mouth-freshening paan, fennel, crushed coconut, betel nut, and various syrups enveloped in a betel leaf. A wonderful end to a fantastic day!
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