FOOD FOR THOUGHT

BY KHALIL AHMED
Apr 17 - 23, 2006

Change is a constant phenomenon. Everything undergoes a definite change. Do people, traditions, cultures and eating habits also change? I would say 'YES' and that is because of external impact, mélange of two or more cultures & traditions and consistent mutual as well as bilateral relations. Cultures, traditions, values etc of one overwhelm the other and hence the change takes place. Our Punjabi brothers are known for their love for food. Because of their 'Ruj Kay Khao' habits, one can find a number of famous places in Punjab. Who doesn't know about 'Phajje kay paye' and 'Food Street of Lahore'.

Looking at the foreign front, we see that roadside restaurants are part and parcel of the Western culture. People in the West prefer going for ease in terms of getting food. The trend was and is that since both husband and wife work, they prefer having food outside to avoid hassle of cooking. Well, well, well! What about our country. Since majority of the population lives in villages and is poverty-stricken, the question of eating out is LUXURY. Is eating out a LUXURY? Yes it is, particularly for those who are not from the big cities of our country. And it is all the way different in big cities like Karachi. Looking back in 1980s, one only remembers a few names including 'Students' Biryani' etc. Change has taken place for two reasons: family composition by and large is both working husband and wife; restaurants have sprung up at full throttle offering the reasonable food prices for all strata of the city. Now one can find hundreds not scores of famous restaurants in every corner of Karachi. We can find the restaurants like Bukhara, Marco Polo, Al Boustan, Shangrilla, Carlton Grill and Lal Qila where a family pays around Rs 400 per person to do full justice with the luxury of having food. To spend comparatively less amount of money, a family can prefer going to Salt n Paper, Ali Baba, Lasania, Usmania, Handi Inn, Bar BQ Tonite, Bundu Khan etc where charges per person range between Rs 250 and Rs 400. To spend even less, a family can choose the chain of restaurants at Boating Basin, Khada Market Defence, Star Roundabout North Nazimabad, Burns Road food street, Civic Centre's Quetta and Tando Adam sajji, the chain of restaurants situated between Drigh Road and Millennium Mall etc where charges per person may be as low as Rs 200. If one likes to have a feel of long drive, all contingent on affordability, and wants to be away from the hustle and bustle of the city for the short period of time, it is advisable to visit the restaurants situated on Super Highway. One must know also that to have luxury of eating food at the restaurants like Al Habib, Al Makkah, Knight Bridge etc waiting time to get a seat may be from 30 minutes to one hour. At times there is tug of war there as well. There may be times when one doesn't have to wait. As far as quality of food is concerned, I give them 100% marks. There are scores of moderately-priced restaurants in the suburbs of the city frequented by food-lovers. Sohrab Goth is renowned for famous Afghan dishes. One can have a feel of Afghanistan in such restaurants where Afghan dishes can be enjoyed at very low prices with utmost hospitality of our Pakhtoon brothers. Not only local but also expensive foreign brand restaurants such as KFC, McDonald's, Pizza Hut, Domino, Subway etc are focus of attention by the gourmet food eaters throughout the city.

What has brought this what I call an abrupt change in Karachi? I think this change is the result of sole non-availability of any other way to socialize. Friends and family members get together to have a few moments of pleasure with each other coupled with delicious food items prepared by thorough professional cooks. During my informal survey of around 100 restaurant patrons, I came to know that most imperative thing is the popularity of the taste of the food of a restaurant which spreads by word of mouth followed by the price charged. Ambience does play the part but by and large it is all about the taste. Karachiites from all corners of the city go to Karachi Haleem, Javed Nihari, Food Centre, Students Biryani, Quetta sajji etc just to enjoy the taste of the food.

Growth of the restaurants across the city is fuelled by the addition of the new restaurants with almost every passing month, not to exaggerate, as this is one of the most lucrative businesses in the city. Growth has been substantiated by the fact that job opportunities are available and apparently more women have joined the work force in the city thus leading the families to the restaurants to some extent, a western phenomenon. Since eating out has become increasingly common, the restaurants/food spots are to spring up to satisfy the ever escalating demand.

I see something taking place in five years. The population of the city at present is around 15 to 16 million and the rapid growth of the restaurants reveals that in future too many restaurants will be vying for too few patrons. With the excess capacity, a shakeout period might occur when financially weak restaurants would fail and only financially sound restaurants would survive. Our restaurants are one of the major sources of earnings so proper guidance should be provided to them by the concerned authorities in order to let them serve the patrons even better thus contributing to the economy. And for this, three things will be of core significance: customer service, cost reduction and product quality.

Being an agricultural country, we import food items worth millions of dollars. In December last year, the import bill of food items rose by 41.89 per cent to $127.407 million. In June last year wheat flour was sold at Rs11.50 per kg which is now being sold for over Rs13 per kg. We can control it by encouraging our farmers. Indian farmers get heavy subsidies whereas our farmers get zero subsidy, rather they pay GST on inputs and electricity thus incur high cost of production. Restaurants attack the consumers by delicious meat-based items: Chicken Karrahi, Mutton Karrahi, Beef Karrahi, Bihari Bottee, Bihari Kabab, Khatacut, Brain Masala, Biryani (Chicken, Mutton, and Beef) etc. Since we eat more meat than what is produced in our country, we import both white and red meat from abroad thus losing our foreign exchange. We need to look into it now to have a better future. Attracting foreign investment is a viable solution in this regard. If Vietnam could attract $8.5 billion FDI in 2005 bolstering its economy to grow at 8.5%, why couldn't we. Our country is a good place for business because of cheap labor and better returns.

With the emergence of thousands of small and big restaurants, the concept of 'Ruj Kay Khao' seems to have prevailed in the city. Karachi has undergone a change with improved infrastructure comparatively and this will further help the restaurant particularly roadside restaurants to mushroom in the forthcoming days, which seems to be a good sign.