Guest author Amna Bakhtiar shares her vegan journey and experiences while spending time with family in Pakistan.
Time can change many things.
Of the several significant changes in my own life in the past few years, switching to a vegan diet was the hardest for some people in my life to come to terms with. I wasn’t exactly sure how to explain it. I hadn’t watched any animal cruelty videos or read related literature. For me, the transition was natural and happened over time.
A vegan diet is aligned with my spirituality, which includes acceptance and compassion for all beings. It really wasn’t a big deal to me and I didn’t give it much thought until I booked my flights to visit my family after five years in Peshawar, Pakistan.
Food is what brings people together. I realized I was going to cast myself out of that bonding ritual in a culture that especially prides itself on relishing meat.
I’ll be upfront and admit I wasn’t particularly fond of eating meat even as a child but couldn’t outright refuse it because I wasn’t sure it was normal to not like meat. For that matter, I wasn’t crazy about eggs either. Cheese was the last to drop off my palette but shockingly that went away as well.
Fortunately Melbourne is an incredibly easy city to live as a vegan.
The variety of vegan-friendly eateries is mind-boggling. I was pretty certain Peshawar was not going to be like that – I’d grown up there after all.
The closer my flight date got, the more anxious I became. What was I going to eat for three weeks?
Online searches for soymilk or similar in Pakistan were not particularly encouraging. I was able to find an overpriced, imported tin of almond milk powder in Australia to take with me, along with other life essentials like vegan chocolate, candy and biscuits.
I was also concerned about flying long-distance. Imagine being trapped on an aircraft at the mercy of sullen flight attendants. It’s hard enough getting them to cooperate even without dietary restrictions. I called Etihad and spoke to an agent for a good half an hour, making sure he understood what vegan meant.
In the end, my flights to Pakistan were uneventful in a good way. Etihad provided vegan meals but as expected Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) had the same food tray for everyone. I looked at it and couldn’t find anything I could eat so it remained untouched. The man sitting next to me was eyeing my shami kebab. Lacking the social mastery to offer it to him, I pretended to go to sleep.
Finally, the plane landed at Islamabad airport. I was back home.
Then, after a long wait at the baggage carousel, I discovered that my bag containing gifts for my family was missing.
As any migrant from South Asia would tell you that when you go back to visit your family, you take gifts with you. Fortunately I recovered the precious bag within a couple of days and couldn’t wait to start handing all the things I’d brought back with me. I’d made the decision to take only cruelty-free, vegan items.
My family’s reaction to their gifts was as gracious as I could have hoped for. So what if the cardigans were cotton instead of wool? And who cares if the natural cologne smelt more like a fabric freshener? It’s the thought that counts, right?
In Islamabad, I was pleasantly surprised to see soymilk and tofu at one of the supermarkets. I didn’t buy any though as I had come too well prepared for my own good. Plus it would be madness to eat tofu when I could be eating delicious home-cooked vegetarian food everyday.
My family took to my veganism much better than I’d hoped and made sure whatever they fed me, met my requirements.
There were plenty of jokes too but nothing hurtful. Overall, my family was quite accepting of the fact that I wasn’t going to be eating meat or dairy anytime soon even if they didn’t quite understand it.
They felt sorry for me because they thought I was missing out. I assured them I wasn’t. Even with a vegan diet I was able to eat a ton of my favourite food which happened to be vegetarian anyway.
A highlight of the trip was meeting up with my one of my best friends who was visiting her family in Peshawar around the same time as me. We met up at a very hip café/bakery. The menu had exactly two items that could potentially be made vegan. I tried my luck.
‘Can I have the vegetarian pizza without the cheese?’ I asked the waiter.
‘That’s just impossible!’ he was appalled at this mad request.
‘Um no, it can be possible. Just ask the guys who cook to not put any cheese on the pizza’.
I wasn’t about to be bullied by this young man.
He shook his head.
‘That’s not possible. The toppings come mixed with cheese’.
‘Uh okay. That’s fine’. Clearly, I’m not much of a fighter. ‘I’ll have the nachos instead, but without cheese. Can you do that?’
‘Yes okay’, he nodded.
‘Great! And I’ll also have the black tea please’
When our food came, my nachos were soaked in sour cream – an ingredient that wasn’t part of the description on the menu. And my ‘black tea’ already had milk in it. I started trembling a little, quite possibly from hunger.
I tried to keep my voice calm as I explained the situation to the waiter who was trying equally hard to stay calm on his end.
‘Black tea always has milk!’ he said adamantly.
‘Don’t call it black tea then!’ I snapped back.
Fortunately my friend jumped in, wise as always and ordered fries for me and told the waiter to bring me green tea, which definitely wouldn’t have any milk in it. A few minutes after eating some food I started laughing at the situation. Maybe it was a learning experience for the waiter. More likely, he wrote it off as the day a crazy woman tried to order food without any dairy.
Most other eateries were more accommodating. In a couple of places I was able to find one or two items that were vegan anyway.
Some other food adventures came up in Lahore, where my uncle and cousins live. Lahore is a significantly bigger city than Peshawar and quite famous for its incredible food. My aunt was freaking out though, wondering what to cook for me!
One night after a delicious home cooked dinner we were hanging out watching an enormously popular Turkish soap opera on TV.
I would’ve enjoyed the show a bit more if my cousin and aunt weren’t explaining the context behind every single scene.
We were eating ‘ravriyan’ which is small pieces of sugary goodness covered in sesame seeds. These were divine and melted in my mouth. Being a sugar fiend, I kept reaching for more and more. The lid of the box was a typical one, with a picture of a substantially sized, moustached Punjabi man looking proud of his contribution to his country, in this case being ravriyan.
I suddenly noticed the lid said: made with pure ghee. Ghee, in case you don’t know, is made with cream.
‘Oh! I can’t eat these!’ I said.
‘Why not?’ my uncle asked.
I pointed at the lid.
‘It says, “Made with pure ghee”’.
‘What makes you think it’s actually made with pure ghee?’
‘Do you think it’d cost so little if it were made with pure ghee?’
‘They just say that as a marketing thing. This is Pakistan! They probably used vegetable oil if we’re lucky’.
Considering it was Pakistan, there was a definite possibility that this delicacy wasn’t made with pure ghee but who knows, maybe this proud gentleman on the lid used some ghee. I chose to snack on dried nuts and raisins instead.
Lahore, as it turns out, is a city where you can definitely have a varied vegan diet. This one huge supermarket in particular not only had tofu, soymilk, array of dark chocolate, vegan-friendly biscuits and other ‘accidentally vegan’ snacks but also Quorn (a meat substitute company) products!
The meatless revolution had made its way to Pakistan. I was super impressed. I am definitely not taking any vegan food with me the next time I go to Pakistan. I’ll be able to buy everything there.
If you’re a vegan or vegetarian and visiting Pakistan, don’t hesitate to tell people what your dietary preference is. Pakistanis are extremely hospitable and most quality restaurants will try their best to accommodate your requirements (that one hip café in Peshawar being the exception).
In fact, the more established a restaurant is, the higher the chances they have a history of providing great customer service and therefore know how to be flexible.
I was blown away by the open-mindedness and acceptance of nearly everyone. I went in anxious and unsure of whether I’d be insulting others by not eating meat or dairy. Instead, I found people to be kind and gracious and willing to know more about why I’d chosen to follow a vegan diet. It really softened my views towards different lifestyles.
If people can be that generous and accepting towards me, surely I can return the same courtesy.
Dietary trends are not the rage in Pakistan yet. I did see plenty of gluten-free products in supermarkets, which shows a greater awareness of different dietary needs.
Vegetarianism is a bit of ways away from becoming mainstream and it would be naïve to think it will be a dominant trend in Pakistan at any point. After all, most Muslims in general love eating meat.
Being a vegetarian or vegan doesn’t need to be this huge deal. We can all learn to live and eat together. It’s definitely possible.
Only by being tolerant can we have informed discussions and exchanges of perspectives. The main thing is to not go with an agenda of trying to change other people, which has never worked in my experience. Instead, try aiming for a genuine, human connection, beyond diet, religion, ethnicity, social standing etc. Whatever else may result from that is just added bonus.
Be the change you want to see in the world and see what happens.