Customs and Cuisine of Pakistan

Customs and Cuisine of Pakistan

By Vinola V. Munyon


What’s in a Name?

Pakistan (in Urdu, Pak = pure, stan = land of) was carved out of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 when India gained independence from British colonial rule. In a contentious event that came to be known as “The Partition”, the subcontinent would be partitioned into Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India, two nations arising from one but with different identities. The partition was in response to a call from the then Muslim league of India to provide just representation to the Muslim population, which the argument went, could only be achieved if the Muslims had their own nation. Pakistan would, until 1971, consist of East Pakistan (located to the east of India) and West Pakistan (located to the west of India) two regions 1,000 miles apart. Following the war of 1971, East Pakistan would gain independence and assume its own identity as Bangladesh and West Pakistan would become the Islamic Nation of Pakistan. Pakistan was “born” with a preordained identity but that has not conferred peace or stability to the region and has, according to some studies, created in its people a stronger affiliation to the religious identity (Muslim) than to the national identity (Pakistani). With India to its east, Afghanistan to its west, Iran to the southwest, and China to the northeast, Pakistan occupies a position that is between Asia and the Middle East and its culture and cuisine are very much a marriage of the two.

The People

As Pakistan, this nation is young, having come into being only in 1947, but in its former avatars it has been the home of one of the oldest known human civilizations in the world. The Indus Valley Civilization, which dates back at least 5,000 years, thrived in the region now known as Pakistan. Over the course of history this region has been under the rule of the Persians, Greeks, Scythians, Arabs, Afghans, Turks, Mughals, and the British. The ethnicity of the Pakistanis reflect this history of the nation. The major ethnic groups – Punjabi (44.7 percent), Pashtun (15.4 percent), Sindhi (14.1 percent), and Saraiki (8.4 percent) – trace their heritage to one or more of the many groups who ruled over the region and/immigrated there.

With a population estimate of about 207 million, Pakistan is the 6th most populous country in the world. About 36.7 percent of its population are urban dwellers concentrated in the following cities: Karachi, Lahore, Faisalabad, Rawalpindi, Sargodha, Islamabad, Gujranwala, Sialkot, Gujrat, Jhelum, Sheikhupura, Nowshera, Mardan, and Peshawar. This statistic makes Pakistan one of the most urbanized countries in South Asia. Tribes continue to inhabit some of the valleys off the Kybher Pass. In the Chitral Valley live the pagan tribe, the Kafir-Kalash (“wearers of the black robe”), the inhabitants of Swat valley, which is lauded as the cradle of Buddhism, and of the Hunza valley trace their lineage to Alexander the Great. Shardu valley is nicknamed “Little Tibet” as the lifestyle and the aesthetic is very much akin to that in Tibet.

Most Pakistanis are at the very least bilingual or trilingual with over 60 languages being recorded as in use in the country. Urdu is the official language, and English, the informal official language. Punjabi, Saraiki, Hindko, Pashto, Sindhi, and Gujarathi are some of the more widely spoken languages. While freedom of religion is granted by the constitution, the country was built on an Islamic identity and Islam is the official religion. About 96 percent of the population practices Islam, with the Sunni branch being by far the most commonly adhered to (85 – 90 percent). Hinduism (1.8 percent), Christianity (1.5 percent), Bahai, Buddhism, Jainism, and Zoroastrianism are some of the other religions observed.

The Family Unit

The patriarchal, extended family is traditionally the norm. However, as with many regions around the world that are rapidly urbanizing, the nuclear family is becoming more common in the cities. While a patriarchal society, civil laws in Pakistan allow for women and female children the right of inheritance, alimony, child custody, and to work outside the home. In reality, these laws aren’t always adhered to and women tend to be more visible in traditionally female-oriented occupations such as homemakers, teachers, and nurses, but there a growing number of women are being appointed to office and law enforcement. The status of women in Pakistan varies depending on the location, ethnic group, and socio-economic group. It is a bit of a paradox that in this country, which was the first among Muslim countries to elect a female Prime Minister (Benazir Bhutto in 1988), forced child marriages, honor killings, marital rape being considered invalid, etc. are common, even in this age. The rise and fall, as it were, of the status of women in this country, seems to rest on who the head of the state/ruling party is at that given time period and their views on equality of the sexes. While its first few heads of state were extremely liberal and pro-feminism, those who followed were not. Confounding this is the disconnect between civil law and Sharia law, the latter being more restrictive and titled toward systematic gender-based discrimination. Since Pakistan’s constitution recognizes civil and Sharia law, the status of women is on balance, less equal than it would seem when only civil law is considered.

The global gender inequality index ranks Pakistan at 121/157 countries. The female literacy rate has improved to 45.8 percent (compared to 69.5 percent for males) but the female dropout rate remains high, especially in rural regions. Marriages are arranged along ethnic and kin lines, with marriages between first and second cousins being fairly common. Dowry is paid by the family of the bride to the groom and dowry-related violence and fatalities are one of the frequent causes of domestic violence against women.

Children are considered a blessing, although male children are valued more than female children, and the arrival of a child in the family is greeted with pomp and festivities. The grandfather is considered a pivotal figure and child-naming rights often rest with him. The child naming ceremony is held 40 days after the birth and the child is addressed by a nickname until then.

The Food of Pakistan

The history of the region, having been a part of and then cleaved out of colonial India, being on the ancient Silk Route, and its religious identity are what define Pakistani cuisine. Pork is forbidden under Islamic tenets, so the animal proteins of choice are lamb, mutton, chicken, beef, and fish. According to some reports, lamb, mutton, and beef are not sold on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, although the reasoning is rooted less in religion and more in commercial trade. The teachings of the Koran require meat to be “halal” (meaning that which is permissible) and that includes not only what kind of animal protein is permitted but the manner in which the animal is prepared for slaughter. The animal is not to suffer unnecessary cruelty during slaughter and the blood is to be drained.

Of the many influences on its history and culture, the Indian and Mughal influences have been the most enduring and visible. Be it in the spices or the dishes (down to the name of the dish), the cuisine in Pakistan is in many ways identical to Indian cuisine or an amalgam of the cuisine from these two regions. As in Indian cuisine, many Pakistani dishes use a mix of spices commonly referred to as “karri,” which is a mix of ground dried turmeric root, red chili pepper or cayenne pepper, fenugreek seeds, and ground dried coriander seeds. Zira (Indian caraway seeds), black pepper, ginger, garlic, and saffron are also frequently used. Dishes that contain animal protein use cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, and nutmeg in addition to Karri. The Mughal influence is seen in the use of dried fruits and nuts in rice and vegetables dishes and the practice of grilling marinated meat on skewers.

Pakistan can be broadly categorized into five provinces: Sindh (the southern coastal region), Balochistan (the southwestern province, also the largest), Punjab (the eastern province), Gilgit Baltistan (the northern province), and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (North West province). The access to seafood in the Sindh region allows for more seafood-based dishes in that province relative to the others which are landlocked. In the Punjab region, rotis (flat bread) are a staple. The Pathans of the Khyber Pakhtunkwa province consume lamb as a staple animal protein, as sheep are reared in that region. Sajji is a dish that is considered quintessentially Balochistan. It consists of lamb or chicken that has been stuffed with rice and rubbed with a spiced green papaya paste and then slow roasted for hours.

Rice, wheat-based flatbread (roti, chappti, paratha, puri), lentils (dal), vegetables (sabzi), yogurt, and fruits (eaten with a dash of salt) are staples through out the country. The average Pakistani consumes three main meals; breakfast, lunch, and dinner. A very popular breakfast is Halva Puri. Puri is a fried flatbread and halva is a sweet paste made of sesame seeds, sugar syrup, and egg whites. Lunch and dinner consist of a carb (rice or a type of flatbread) with an animal or plant protein that has been stewed (meat stew or lentils or beans), vegetables, and yogurt.

Some popular dishes are:

  • Shabdeg: roughly translates to “the night boiler.” Mutton, beet, and turnip are simmered in a copper cauldron overnight to result in a thick stew.
  • Aloo Ghosht: translates to “potatoes and meat.” Aloo (potatoes) and Ghosht (mutton or lamb) are cooked in a spicy tomato-based stew with ginger, garlic, and cinnamon. It is typically served hot with rice or paratha.
  • Chapli Kebab/Peshawari Kebab: translates to “of Peshawar.” Traditional to Peshawar region, this kebab is made of ground beef and spices. Served with garnishes such as fresh parsley, diced tomatoes, and onions, it is a popular street food and a side dish at dinner.
  • Sai Bhaji: translates to “green vegetables.” From the Sindh region, this vegan stew has a mix of seasonal greens such as spinach, gongura, and fenugreek leaves in a spiced lentil soup. Served over rice or with roti, it is a hearty yet healthy main dish.
  • Nihari: Nahar = day. A hearty brunch dish typically consumed after morning prayers, this spicy stew is made by slow-braising lamb or beef overnight. Cuts of bone-in meat are used along with ginger, pepper, coriander powder, garam masala (an Indian spice mix), and lemon. The slow braising results in tender, fall-off the bone meat and an intensely flavorful, spicy stew.
  • Haleem: a stew of meat and lentils spiced with coriander, fresh ginger, and chili peppers and garnished with fried onions and lemon.

At festive occasions, pulao is often the star of the feast. A one-pot dish of spiced rice, vegetables such as carrots and peas, and animal protein such as mutton or chicken, it is served hot with a side of raitha (yogurt sauce).

Biryani is another meat, vegetable, and rice dish that is served on festive occasions. Unlike pulao, for Biryani the components are cooked separately to a semi-done state. Rice is par-boiled, vegetables are steamed, and meat is sautéed, and then the components are layered in a pot and steamed until fully cooked. It is served topped with roasted nuts (cashews, slivers of almonds), dried fruits (raisins, apricots, etc.), and fried onions.

Popular desserts are seviyaan (vermicelli pudding with pistachios and saffron), falooda (a layered milkshake of sorts made with ice cream, vermicelli, chia seeds, jelly, and rose water), kheer (rice pudding), gulab jamun (fried dough in syrup).

Alcohol is forbidden in the Islamic faith, so chai (black tea leaves boiled in milk with nutmeg and sugar) is commonly consumed. During the summer months, cold beverages of choice are juice from sugarcane, “nimbu pani” (fresh lime juice), and lassi (sweet or savory yogurt drink).

The Pakistan Way of Life

In the Islamic nation of Pakistan, life and life principles are heavily influenced by the teachings of the Islamic faith. Women in the less urban parts of the country are still expected to practice “purdah” (seclusion) which can take the form of just wearing a head-covering to the more restrictive practice of staying in separate quarters within the house.

Traditionally men and women wear shalwar-kamiz, the kamiz/kameez is a long knee-length shirt while the shalwar are draw-string linen pants. Men’s kamiz tend to typically be of neutral colors and plain while women’s tend to be colorful and have elaborate embroidery and other embellishments. Women wear a dupatta or shawl draped over the upper half of their torso. For formal occasions, men might wear a coat known as sherwani. In some conservative communities, purdah would require women to wear, at the very least, a head covering and at the most, a burqa. Fez hats or the Karakul hats (boat shaped hats) are frequently worn by men.

Ramadan, Eid-I-Milad-un-Nabi, and Shab-I-Barat are important religious festivals/observations. During the holy month of Ramadan, observant Muslims (with the exception of the elderly, pregnant women, and very young children) are required to fast from dawn to dusk and offer prayers in gratefulness for all the ways Allah had blessed them in the year past. The end of the month of fasting is marked by Eid, a celebration of the breaking of the fast. Eid-I-Milad-un-Nabi marks the celebration of the birth of the prophet Muhammad.

Cricket is the most popular sport and rivalry with the Indian cricket team is legendary. However, the national sport is field hockey.


Alichin, Bridget, and Alichin, Raymond. The Rise of Civilization in India and Pakistan, 1982.

The CIA World Factbook available at:

Roma Rasheed, personal interview.

View Recipes from Pakistan