Biryani, Lahori fish, pulao ... Pakistani cuisine and its presence in the UAE

Biryani, Lahori fish, pulao ... Pakistani cuisine and its presence in the UAE

Expatriates talk about the multi-cultural appeal of food and a dying culinary heritage

Chaplee Kebabs
Chapli Kababs - a delicacy from the city of Peshawar in Pakistan Image Credit: Shutterstock

Sizzling puris and halwa for breakfast, fragrant biryani for lunch, meaty nihari for dinner and lassi to wash it all down - Pakistanis do not take their food lightly, literally.

As old as the Indus Valley, Pakistani cuisine, known for its bold flavours and meat-forward dishes, is influenced by the region’s agricultural diversity, history of migration and abundance of local spices.

Food by Gulf News explores what has made Pakistani cuisine into what we know it as today.

Regional differences

The country’s rich cuisine greatly depends on its location, vast geographical diversity and varying weather patterns across the country.

Whether it’s samosas (known as sambosak in the Arabic-speaking world), pulao (eaten in Iran and various central Asian countries) or dishes also enjoyed by Indians, Pakistan’s key location that marries together Central Asian, South Asian and Middle Eastern culture is evident in its food.

Within the country that spans 881,913 square kilometres with a population of over 216 million people, its culinary diversity is clear as one travels from region to region.

Food from the eastern region such as the province of Punjab and Sindh is considered heavily seasoned and spicy whereas the food in the northern and western provinces of Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Tribal Areas, and the Gilgit-Baltistan region are characterised by their mild flavours, which is usually a characteristic of food from the adjoining regions of Central Asia and Western Asia.

Sindhi biryani
Sindhi biryani Image Credit: Gulf News archives

Pakistani expat Saira Ahmed, Managing Director at Little Lahore restaurant has been in the restaurant business, specialising in Pakistani cuisine, for over five years in Dubai.

“Every region of Pakistan has produced its own speciality of various dishes. Indeed the diversity of regional cuisines contributes to the rich, colourful and aromatic overall food culture,” she said.

In the south, famous Sindhi dishes include sai bhaji chawal, which comprises white steamed rice served with spinach curry, which is given a 'tarka' (method of seasoning food with spices heated in oil or ghee) with tomatoes, onions and garlic and of course, and the Sindhi biryani.

In Sindh’s capital, Karachi, the cuisine is strongly influenced by the city's Muhajir population, who came from various parts of India and settled primarily in the city after the independence of Pakistan in 1947.

The Mughal, Awadhi, and Hyderabadi cuisine played an influential role in the making of Muhajir cuisine. Popular dishes include biryani, pulao, qorma, paya, kofta, seekh kabab, nihari, haleem, nargisi koftay (scotch egg curry), kata-kat (a dish made with various organ meat), rogani naan and the list goes on…

Nihari - a delicacy eaten across Pakistan but most famously found in the city of Karachi Image Credit: Pixabay

“Pakistanis are big meat eaters, so the cuisine revolves around mutton, lamb, chicken and fish. A lot of varied spices are added to enhance the flavours and give fragrance to the dishes for example cardamom, cumin, coriander, cloves, cinnamon, star anise, black pepper and nutmeg. Dried fruits such as plums are also used to lend a sweet and sour flavour,” said Ahmed, who uses traditional recipes at her restaurant as well as her own variations of typical dishes.

Agriculture being the largest sector of Punjab's economy, its cuisine is testament to that. Plenty of plant-based dishes such as sarson ka saag (cooked mustard greens) and aloo parathay (potato stuffed flatbread) are enjoyed in the eastern province.

Punjabi cuisine follows similar principles of cooking and ingredients across the Punjab region that comprises areas of eastern Pakistan and northern India. However, certain elements vary throughout the region.

A farm in Pakistan
A farm in Pakistan - picture for illustrative purposes only Image Credit: Pixabay

Meat-based dishes are also popular in the area such as bong paye (a dish made from legs and joints of cow, goat, buffalo or sheep), murgh chanay or murgh cholay (slowcooked chicken and chickpeas), and Lahori fish (battered and fried spicy fish) which the province’s capital, Lahore, is famous for.

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, famous for its mildly-spiced Pashtun-style cuisine, rice and meat are the stars of many prominent dishes. Lamb is eaten more often in Pashtun cuisine than any other Pakistani cuisines.

Kabuli pulao
Kabuli pulao - a meat and rice based dish from Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province Image Credit: Shutterstock

Chapli kabab from Peshawar, grilled meats, and mutton karahi are some of the most famous dishes in the region. Additionally, no Pashtun feast is complete without the rice-based delicacy kabuli pulao, which is sprinkled with generous amounts of dried fruits, nuts and sweet carrots.

It's not just dishes, the uniqueness of Pakistani cuisine starts right at the heart of the process - with the spices, for which its known.

Amchoor (dried unripe mango slices or powder), rosewater, jaggery, saffron and pomegranate peel are some of the ingredients that are used in Pakistani food but might not be common elsewhere.

It’s always a family affair

Whether it’s a shared meal of kabuli pulao amongst tribe members, biryani-led family lunch after Friday prayers or a warm bowl of sheer khorma (vermicelli pudding) on Eid day, food for Pakistanis is a social affair.

Extremely passionate about food, Pakistanis cannot end a meal right after the main dish and that’s where dessert and after-meal tea comes into play. This time is also a chance to socialise.

Akhrot ka halwa (walnut halva), sohan halwa, kheer (rice pudding), zarda (basmati rice cooked with milk and sugar) are amongst popular desserts in the country. Sugar, ghee, nuts and milk are generously used in Pakistani desserts.

While sharing these sweet delicacies and laughs, most Pakistanis have made distinct memories of food they enjoyed as children and dishes their family members prepare.

My most ingrained food related childhood memory was sneaking in the kitchen and observing my mother and our cook preparing various yummy dishes

- Saira Ahmed, Managing Director at Little Lahore

“My most ingrained food related childhood memory was sneaking in the kitchen and observing my mother and our cook preparing various yummy dishes. My passion of cooking comes from my late mother who was a phenomenal cook and baker. I would eagerly wait to eat whatever was being cooked by her especially at different festivals,” said Ahmed.

Many Pakistanis have learnt to cook from their mothers and other older relatives, and holding onto generational recipes is common practice.

My mother would grind herbs and spices by hand using a mortar and pestle and sometimes cook over wood. The smell of dishes like haleem, nihari and shola (savory rice dish cooked using pulses, spinach and chunks of meat) would fill up the whole street.

- Gulzar Ahmed Siddiqui, Sharjah resident

Pakistani expat Gulzar Ahmed Siddiqui has lived in the UAE for 29 years but he remembers childhood memories related to food, especially delicacies made by his late mother, like it was yesterday. 

"It's not just the dishes that were made at my home, it was also the cooking method that was important. My mother would grind herbs and spices by hand using a mortar and pestle and sometimes cook over wood. The smell of dishes like haleem, nihari and shola (savoury rice dish cooked using pulses, spinach and chunks of meat) would fill up the whole street," he said.

Speaking about the changes Pakistani cooking has gone through he said: "Things have become more commercialised and some of the heritage is lost. The world has changed, people don't have time to wait for kheer to set overnight in a clay bowl."

Pakistani food in the UAE

Just like Siddiqui, many Pakistani immigrants have brought their love and knowledge of food to the UAE over the years and opened restaurants to offer a piece of their home and heritage. 

Coming across a Pakistani restaurant in various parts, especially densely populated areas, of Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah is not rare.

NAT Ravi restaurant 1-1590927655069
Ravi's Satwa, Dubai

Some eateries date back to the 1970s and have been managed and visited by several generations. For instance, Delhi Nihari in Sharjah and the legendary Ravi’s restaurant in Dubai were both founded in 1978.

Food by Gulf News spoke to Waheed Abdul Hameed, Managing Director at Ravi's and the son of the owner of the restaurant who started the famous eatery over four decades ago in Dubai.

"I grew up right above the restaurant, we had our flat there. The establishment grew in size and popularity over the years and took over the adjacent shops. The growth in size of the restaurant actually signified the growth of Pakistani cuisine in the UAE," Abdul Hameed said.

As more and more Pakistani expats arrived in the UAE over the years, the cuisine grew in popularity and it is currently available across the country.

"Over the years, people coming in to the UAE have grown fond of Pakistani food and many get to try it for the first time. For instance, we have a lot of Europeans who come to our restaurant as well as Arabs. They love dishes like mutton Peshawari, grilled meats and curries," Abdul Hameed said.

Speaking about where the restaurateur sees the Pakistani food industry going in the UAE, he said: "I would love to see more fine dining restaurants with Pakistani food."

Abu Dhabi resident, Mohammed Atiq Raja, currently working as a branch manager at an office automation company, has had over 20 years of experience in the restaurant industry in the UAE.

Raja owned and managed multiple restaurants after he first arrived in the UAE in the 1990s.

"I would say the Pakistani food industry in the UAE has grown by leaps and bounds. When I first came the competition was not so high, now there is a new restaurant in every street," he said.

I would say the Pakistani food industry in the UAE has grown by leaps and bounds.

- Mohammed Atiq Raja, Abu Dhabi resident

Crediting the popularity of the cuisine to its diversity and uniqueness, Raja said: "It [Pakistani food] can be easily adjusted, we changed the level of spiciness at our restaurants according to the guests. Plus it's also different. Europeans would come for dishes like grilled meat and biryani but end up trying maghaz (brain) masala," he said. 

So if this article made you crave a steaming hot plate of biryani or spicy karahi with freshly baked naan, your options of Pakistani restaurants in the UAE are many.

Here are three popular Pakistani recipes and a guide to try:

Recipe Pakistani-style kurkuri bhindi or crispy okra: This is a popular snack or appetizer in Pakistani households. It is sliced in length, covered in gram flour, smeared with spices to be deep fried. Crunch in every bite!

Recipe for Lahore's famous fried fish: Made using Nile Perch or Hamour fish, this is a popular dish that can be easily made under twenty minutes with as little as seven ingredients.

Here is the recipe for Pakistani-style chicken karahi: Chicken cooked in a thick tomato-based gravy, infused with the traditional garam-masala spice (a blend of ground spices) 

Try this guide to making flaky Pakistani paratha and aloo paratha (spiced-potato stuffed bread): A whole-wheat flour bread rolled into layers and served with dips or pickles. The other recipe uses the same dough to make aloo paratha or stuffed potato inside the bread and enjoyed with youghurt or masala chai (milk based spiced-tea) 

Tell us your favourite recipes at

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