A Vegetarian Guide to Northern Pakistan

Surviving as a Vegetarian in the Northern Areas of Pakistan

I cycled through Gilgit-Baltistan (also known as the Northern Areas) in September 2018. While planning the trip I took the time to research the types of foods that might be available to a vegetarian in this region, home of the Karakoram Highway. My research was relatively unsuccessful and would often just result in recipes for the Pakistani cuisine. Rather than summarising a number of other web based information sources, I feel it most effective if I summarise the experiences and meal types that I found most commonly available.

It is important to note that my mode of transport was by bicycle and I often cooked for myself with fresh produce from fruit and vegetable stalls, in more remote areas the selection was often limited and much of what was on offer wasn’t that fresh, so be very selective. If I ate in a restaurant it was usually at a small, road side restaurant. The restaurant employees rarely spoke English beyond the basics so learning what all the dishes were called was a struggle but I hope that my findings are, at the very least, a starting point for anyone else in search of this type of dietary information.

The typical meal in northern Pakistan will consist of an oily curry, most often meat based, accompanied by a rice dish or some for of bread. Some restaurants will openly offer a curry dish ‘refill’ at no extra cost, some will replenish your stack of flatbread at no extra cost, some may charge extra for flatbread whereas at some restaurants the flat bread is included in the price of the main dish. Some restaurants serve food with a complimentary salad where as at others, this is an added expense. We often paid much less than expected whereas other restaurant a would have hidden costs. The best advise I could give is to have a ‘most expensive’ cost of the meal in mind and if the bill is higher than this amount, kindly request to see a breakdown of the total cost.

If I could give three essential tips for surviving as a vegetarian they are as follows:

1. Memorize the words “daal” and “sabzi” (vegetable), these simple words will go along way.
2. Ask the restaurant owner if you can look at what is available in the kitchen. We were never refused, were shown all available dishes and could chose by eye rather than guessing.
3. If you go on an organised tour or trek, ensure that you state your dietary requirements before you set off.

Flatbread

Flatbread is the most common food type across northern Pakistan and atleast one of the following will no doubt be available to order from any restaurant at any meal time:

Naan / Nan – leavened, oven baked
Roti / Chapati – unleavened, cooked on a phulka (hot plate)
Poratha / Paratha – cooked in oil or ghee

Breakfast

If you do not wish to survive off curry for three meals a day and would like a meal suited more towards a breakfast then you are likely to come across the following options:

Omelette – Just egg or vegetable (sometimes with chilli)
Omelette – Half fry
Omelette – Full fry

Omelette is most commonly served with poratha / paratha. Though, I found that a fried omelette and fried flatbread was often too much fat and oil in the morning and didn’t sit well. I would recommend requesting that an omelette is served with plain chapati.

Halwa – a crumbly mixture of flour or semolina, sugar, oil (in it’s most basic form)and is usually eaten with chapati or poratha during the winter months.

Lunch or Dinner

Lunch and dinner are cross-functional, you are likely to find the same meals on offer throughout the day. One important word to learn and use often is “Sabzi(often pronounced “sub-zee”). This translates to ‘vegetable‘ and you can almost be sure that your plate won’t be accompanied by a hunk of beef.

Salad – Salad is often available and some restaurants this is included in the price of a dish and will be served with your main. The salad usually consists of red onion and cucumber.

Common curry dishes available

Daal – Lentils/pulses

Daal Mash/Maash – Lentils/pulses
Daal Chana – Chickpeas

Mixed Sabzi (mixed vegetable curry)

Saag/Palak – Spinach

Lubya- Kidney beans, tomato based dish

Aloo – Potato based dish with a variety of veg

Rice dishes (often served in very large portions):

Plain rice
Vegetable rice

Drinks

Tea/Chai – Served strong, milky with sugar (usually boiled at high temperature)
Green tea
Coffee most likely to be instant, Nescafe Original

Coffee

I am a self proclaimed coffee snob and caffeine addict. Usually the only coffee we could find on offer in supermarkets throughout Gilgit-Baltistan was Nescafe Original and whenever I ordered a Coffee at a hotel or restaurant, it was Nescafe Original. After finishing my personal stash of fresh coffee that I packed in my panniers, I had no choice but to temporarily attune my coffee taste buds to the somewhat harsh flavour of black Nescafe Original. But it beats a coffeeless morning.

As we rode South further freeze dried coffees became available. These included Jacobs, Nescafe Gold Blend and Davidoff. Though these brands were usually at least double the price of Nescafe Original.

Coffee in Islamabad

Ground Lavazza coffee was available at bespoke coffee shops, cafes amd large supermarkets such as a Cash and Carry in Islamabad.

I enjoyed good quality fresh coffee at the following cafes:

The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf (highly recommended, pretty much serves Americano by the pint)
The Burning Brownie

Canteen Style Restaurants

In larger cities, Islamabad included, the price of a meal at a restaurant can increase dramatically. I found a number of canteen style restaurants in Skardu, Islamabad, Lahore.

If Skardu is on your itinerary, I highly recommend The City Inn Restaurant. It serves large portions at a very good price and the waiter will replenish your naan until you can eat no more.