The year was 2017. My best friend was planning a trip to Hunza & Skardu and asked me if I wanted to tag along. As a Pakistani who grew up in a moderately conservative household, it was a pretty big deal for me when my mom got on board with the plan. My first road trip with friends! The first of many to come.
Early morning on June 16th we set off in a friend’s four-wheel drive. There were five of us and one friend we planned to meet in Skardu.
Gilgit-Baltistan is an autonomous region of Pakistan. Hunza is the northern end of GB, sharing borders with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on the west and Xinjiang China on the north-east. Skardu is another city of GB, you have to pass through Skardu to get to Hunza. From the mountain tops that seem to touch the cloudy skies to the lush green valleys, GB is like a little piece of heaven on Earth.
Anyone who has ever visited the area waxes lyrical about its beauty and tranquility, but I want to talk about the absolutely delicious food there. Being a desi, I love everything spicy. It’s a running joke with my in-laws that I can’t taste food unless it's doused in Sriracha, it’s really hard to get me to appreciate food that doesn’t burn my tongue a little bit. The fact that I loved Balti food, which has no chili spice to speak of, is a testament to just how scrumptious everything we tried there, was.
Here’s my list of must-try foods of Hunza and Skardu:
On our way to the guesthouse in Skardu, we stopped in the main market for something to eat. We got some corn on the cob, cooked in hot sand, and rubbed with lemon juice, salt, and chili. This is a local Pakistani appetizer, called Sittay or Bhuttay, and is a godsend when it’s cold outside.
We also decided to try some Mamtu, a local GB dish, that consists of flour dumplings that are filled with either beef or lamb meat, cooked with various spices and onions. These dumplings are steam boiled and served piping hot with a few squirts of tobacco sauce on top. They were so good, each of us had 5 or 6 helpings and still wanted more.
The next dish on my list of recommendations is Chapshuro, akin to a calzone, these are made with flour, filled with cooked meat, tomato paste, and cheese, and then cooked in a stone fire oven. Served piping hot, with your choice of beverage, they are super-filling and delicious.
Udong Balay Soup & Cashew Meat Dish
Even though we visited GB in the middle of summer, GB is cold the whole year through. We thanked our lucky stars for this hot and filling soup. The Udong Balay soup is a vegetarian dish, which has 6 different kinds of beans, cooked overnight with various spices. It warms you all the way to your toes.
The Meat and Cashew dish is a soupy, creamy dream. You can eat it with a piece of bread or just dig in with a spoon. It’s very rich because of the cashew paste, but your heart will want more even when your tummy has had its fill.
Xchapkhoor and Walnut Chai
GB is famous for its walnuts and apricots; they’re eaten raw, their oil is used for cooking and for hair & skincare, and they are cooked and used in savory and sweet dishes.
Xchapkhoor is a round bread cake made with barley, walnuts, and jaggery. It’s a filling dessert you can have after a meal or at tea time. I had it with walnut tea, which is surprisingly creamy and doesn’t need any milk. This was the perfect end to a delicious meal.
This may be the crown jewel of our trip. It’s famous throughout Pakistan and more than lived up to its name. You can only get the authentic Hunza Walnut Cake from Café de Hunza. Most of the food at the café is really good and the décor and view are amazing too. This just takes the cake, though (hehe). A really crumbly cake with a yummy walnut and honey filling, it’s like nothing I’ve ever had before or since.
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