And also Pakistan's most popular breakfast
If you’re hoping to polish off a plate of halwa poori, the spicy-sweet, deep fried goodness that’s also the most popular breakfast in Pakistan, make sure you’re ravenous. Halwa poori, the Muhammad Ali of Pakistani breakfasts, is a traditional meal passed down from the Mughals over generations, originally conceived in the Indian province of Punjab. The dish comes with a few variations in both India and Pakistan, but you can usually expect to find generous servings of an all-you-can-eat fried, puffy flat bread, a dollop of sizzling, sweet halwa (a hot local dessert made of semolina, cardamom, and shaved almonds), spicy chickpea curry, and a sunny yellow potato curry. It’s finished with helpings of tangy pickled mango and chilled yogurt on the side; the latter which aids in cooling down the spiciness of the plate.
While some restaurants whip up the chickpeas and potatoes into one hybrid curry, other eateries in Lahore (where I live and dine on halwa poori every now and then) prefer to serve the curries separately. Even though halwa poori is served at almost every restaurant in the city—be it at a five-star hotel or a cramped eatery in Old Lahore—perhaps the most popular halwa poori go-to spots in the city are Capri and Bundu Khan in Gulberg. I find myself oscillating between the two, depending on my mood. While Capri’s grub is oilier, messier, and sharper (in terms of flavor), Bundu Khan is milder, neater in presentation, and easier on the oil.
Set on opposite ends of a busy street, amid the cacophony of car horns, beggars, shops, and street-cart vendors, Capri’s cooks, spilling out onto the edge of the road, expertly flip and fry pooris in large vats of piping hot oil, tossing them on to plates before they’re whisked away to hungry customers seated both inside the restaurant, or in the car park of an adjoining cinema.
Preparing halwa poori at home, for me personally, is nothing short of a sin. Consuming the dish with a loved one in your car with the AC on full blast on a hot summer day, is, perhaps half the fun. Halwa poori has been synonymous with my childhood growing up in Lahore, where my mother (a single mum) would take my brother and me to Capri on every alternate Sunday morning. Wolfing down poori after poori, our little breakfast bonding sessions became a tradition.
If you’re a halwa poori rookie, be prepared for a bit of a jolt. The only two eating instructions you’ll ever need: Make sure to alternate between dipping your bread (and fingers) in the curry and the halwa—confuse those taste buds. Secondly, if you’re a strict vegetarian (like myself) stuck in a carnivorous city, make sure you ask your waiter (repeatedly) whether the halwa poori is completely, purely, vegetarian. Animal fat is sometimes thrown in for a richer taste.
When I asked her about halwa poori, New York-based Pakistani chef Fatima Ali, who won the cooking competition show Chopped in 2011, reminisced about sneaking out of school in Karachi to gorge on halwa poori with her classmates.
“[It’s the] perfect balance of spice, sweet, and grease. The halwa poori breakfast became synonymous with great memories for me, and still evokes a nostalgia of adolescence and guiltless indulgence,” she said.
Having lived and worked in New York as a Chef for seven years, Ali currently runs VanPakistan, an outdoor food stall at Brooklyn’s Smorgasburg where she puts together classic Pakistani street food, including, of course, halwa poori.
“My own spin on the classic dish is a playful nod to New York City,” said Ali. “I make a halwa poori waffle with a crisp rice flour batter waffle to replace the poori, a maple butternut squash halwa spread, topped with stewed chickpeas and tamarind potatoes.”
Dubai-based food writer Dev J Haldar, who grew up in New Delhi, said that for him, halwa poori was commonly linked to prasad (religious food offerings prepared by temples and households for Hindu devotees during the Navaratri festival). “A certain ceremony, during Navratra,” Haldar said, “Will see pooris, a tad bigger than coins, stashed along with nicely dried up halwa and kalay chaney (black chickpeas). Since children were never refused, we’d wind up coming home with two packs each.” For Haldar, the scrumptiousness of halwa poori is bumped up a few notches not by a particular ingredient, but by what the dish is served in: bowls spun together with tree leaves.
Sheharyar Rizwan, a Pakistani journalist who set out to find the best halwa poori in Lahore last year, discovered a hole-in-the-wall called Sadiq Halwa Puri near a railway station in the Old City of Lahore, that truly lived up to the traditional meal’s reputation.
“What made this particular shop special was the distinct taste of its chickpea curry,” Rizwan states, “Others I had were very similar in taste but as soon as I had my first bite at the restaurant, I could feel the difference. The ingredient of fenugreek in the curry was distinguishable. Besides the curry, the halwa was fresh and the restaurant offered a little baked biscuit [meethi tikki] as part of the deal, along with fresh out of the fryer, piping hot poori.”
A word of advice: Devour your halwa poori on a weekend, preferably a Sunday when you have a minimum number of chores to do. The halwa poori-induced food coma, I promise, isn’t pretty. But it’s so worth it.
Sonya Rehman, based in Lahore, Pakistan, is a journalist and vegetarian (in that order) with a serious proclivity for all things salted caramel and extra spice—never in moderation, always in extremes. She can be reached at email@example.com.