The Patthan Hotel and Restaurant sits proudly between the general store and the bakery on Airport Road, Gilgit. Nestled in a dry valley in the Northern Areas of Pakistan, this ancient town has been a trading centre on the southern Silk Road into China for over two millennia. More recently it was the pivotal point in the Great Game, the saga of Anglo-Russian supremacy struggles in the Indian sub-continent. Alexander the Great also came here, although I am not sure that it was specifically to experience the delights of the Patthan Hotel and Restaurant!
The Lonely Planet guide to Pakistan says, "Most budget travellers will not remember the country for its food", and yet it recommends the Patthan as a place to eat. I defy anyone not to enjoy the experience of eating here, and relish the provender on offer. Personally, I found the food wonderful every time I went, which was often. Glancing either way up Airport Road, you see dimly lit shops and eateries, flanking dimly lit traffic. The Patthan stands out with its garish fluorescent tubes drawing you in like a fly to the light. In fact it seems to draw its fair share of flies as well, but this should not deter the would be client. As you draw closer, all its character is on display. The food is cooked on a giant stand, open to the street. There seem to be hundreds of chefs at work, but it turns out that there are only six, all of them very busy. The array of gastronomy is astounding and the best way to choose is to point and ask. The headwaiter will rush up with a welcoming smile when you peer into the karhais (cooking pots) and usher you into the drearily lit restaurant. Oblige him, order drinks and then rush back to the action.
At the front, actually on the street is where they make the shish kebabs. A legacy of Middle Eastern influence, these can be found all over northern Pakistan and are something of a local delicacy. There is a master at work here, with a mound of keema (spicy minced mutton), some skewers and a charcoal fire. He expertly moulds the mince onto the skewers, barbecues them to a well done perfection and then serves them with fried tomatoes, onions and fresh chillies. A must with every meal.
The real action is behind him on the cooking stand. Hanging from the awning by long, scrawny necks are a dozen plucked chickens just waiting their turn. To view the various dishes you must weave in and out of these, ducking and side-stepping to avoid an unfortunate collision. Standing about three feet above street level there are half a dozen kerosene stoves roaring away into the night. This is industrial cooking and pressure is maintained in the stoves, not by the small pump provided, but by a two handed stirrup pump. Sitting on small, raised seats behind the stoves are the chefs. With spoons three feet long they stir their concoctions. Throwing ingredients across the boards into the karhais, they apply the master touch. A sizzling pot of chicken or mutton masala simmers away next to dahl, bindi, saag (spinach) and aloo (potato) dishes. The smell is enough to make you drool, and the taste buds dance in anticipation.
For me, ordering was a simple affair. I merely pointed to everything and asked the man to bring a little of everything. But then my attention was drawn away from the organised chaos to the corner where the fat man makes the burgers. This is a man of stature, who obviously revels (and partakes) in his cooking. Sitting in front of a massive wok that challenges his girth, he dazzles the senses with his culinary skills. A pile of richly spiced keema is moulded in seconds into a perfect burger shape. This is nonchalantly thrown the necessary distance into sizzling hot oil and flipped with an unexpected dexterity using the ubiquitous three foot spoon. Just when you think it will burn, another is launched, frisbee style. Before this lands, the first one is flipped once more to reveal a perfectly browned underside. The process is repeated; the first is served and the second is flipped, seemingly while the third is still in the air. I could have spent all night watching, but the waiter summoned me to my table where a feast fit for a king was laid out.
Looking around I noticed many pairs of eyes examining me. This is a local establishment and the eyes belonged to wild, bearded Pushtans, Hunzans, Chitralis and Afghans, a diversity born out of Gilgit's trading history. If they liked it, I decided that it would be good enough for me. So, after washing my hands in the sink at the back of the restaurant, rolling up my sleeves and making room for the naan bread on the table, I set to.
Eating was every bit the experience that watching it being cooked had been. The variety of tastes and textures was exquisite. Eating slowly, using the naan as a spoon, and under the bewildered stares of the local crowd, I ploughed on. The shish kebabs had a chargrilled taste that conjured up images of Arabian nights of mystery and seduction. The chicken masala had a mixture of spices that I could not place, but would love to have in my kitchen at home and the accompanying dishes were fantastic. The bindi was especially good, again in a spice mixture that I will surely dream about, and subtly cooked to leave the taste of the vegetable on the tongue. The naan breads kept arriving, fresh from the ovens next door and a regular supply of mango juice arrived from the fridge of the general store. The service was fast and friendly and the appreciative looks of the gathered clientele confirmed my thoughts about the food.
Eventually, full to bursting, I called it a day. I probably left as much as some of the locals would eat in a week and still the bill came to just over a pound. I left, having washed my hands once more, amid a round of handshakes from the waiters and chefs alike. Last in the line, reaching out over his massive wok (and belly), was the fat man who makes the burgers.
A word of warning. This is not deluxe dining. The hygiene looks terrible, the eating area would certainly not reach European cleanliness standards and when the electricity fails during one of Gilgit's many power cuts, the flies hitch rides on the overhead fans. However, the food is cooked fresh and arrives at the table piping hot. I have never been ill from eating there and anyway, the alternatives are worse. Across the road the fat man flips the burgers with his bare feet!
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