Shahid Musa, proprietor of Ali Zeb Publishers in Urdu Bazar in Lahore, was born to travel and can hardly resist any such opportunity coming his way. Whenever there is a local holiday or there is a call for a strike by the business community, he packs his bags, and heads to tourist destinations up north.
He still carries along almost the same items that he would around 20 years ago, except one additional item in his luggage: home-cooked food in sufficient quantity, “because the food available in the northern areas does not suit my digestive system,” he says.
To his convenience, a food canning company near his workplace in Urdu Bazar, Al Faisal Foods, “packs freshly-cooked food in cans that can be used up to a year,” he adds. Now, he carries servings of his favourite dishes in properly sealed food-grade tin cans which provide the benefits of both hygiene and longevity as air is sucked out of these to prevent bacteria from growing.
Al Faisal Foods enjoyed an almost perfect monopoly for quite long but now more companies are coming up to provide the same service. Being in the business since 1994, he says, this company has moved to Super Market, Shah Jamal, to primarily allow greater convenience to customers who find it hard to reach the congested Urdu Bazar area when carrying food.
Different varieties of food — chicken, mutton, beef, haleem, nihari, hareesa, biryani, paye, methai etc are packed in cans, and delivered to the customers the next day. The prices charged, nearly the same in the major cities of Pakistan, are Rs100 for a half kilogramme tin and Rs200 for a one kilogramme tin. At their counter, the attendant receives the food meant to be packed, and ensures they follow instructions provided by the customers.
The food to be packed should be brought in freshly cooked and piping hot, have cooking oil used in a comparatively large quantity and should contain small quantities of ingredients such as yogurt, tomato and vinegar. Care should be taken to make sure that the food is slightly undercooked when brought to the shop – “It should be 10 per cent uncooked”, according to the management at Al Faisal.
There is a reason for this. The acidic value of certain ingredients in the food can impact its shelf life, and the food, as a part of the process, has to be heated to a certain degree as well before it is packed.
The trend of preserving home-cooked food in tin cans is more common in Karachi than it is in Lahore. People in Karachi also get seasonal food preserved for use throughout the year.
Ali Asghar from Tayyabi Food Canning at Burns Road, Karachi, says their clientele has not just increased but is becoming more diverse by the day. “Earlier, many people travelling to countries like Thailand and China had to go without chicken, beef and mutton for weeks as very few outlets serve halal food in these areas.”
But, since the number of businessmen travelling to these destinations has increased, awareness about the food-packing facility has also increased. With Pakistan fast turning into an import-based economy, outbound travel to these destinations is on the rise.
Asghar adds some people are even fearful of non-halal animal fat or ingredients used during the preparation of vegetables, lentils, salad etc. which leaves them with only fruits, nuts and raw vegetables as viable options. This explains the ever-growing popularity of food-canning facilities today. Some even buy food from popular outlets at Burns Road and get it canned. “But in that case the cooks at these shops are requested to follow some instructions,” he adds.
Regulars at Tayyabi Food Canning include pilgrims travelling to Saudi Arabia for Umra. Carrying canned food, according to Asghar, saves them the hassle of going to markets to get food as companies offering Umra packages do not include food in the deal. Pilgrims, exhausted at the end of a long day spent performing religious rituals at Holy places, can understandably only fixate on reaching their hotel as early as possible.
“Electricity in Saudi Arabia is damn cheap and even three-star hotels provide and allow use of electric kettles. This makes heating food in the room very convenient,” Asghar explains.
Another interesting fact is that sometimes travellers have to carry canned food not for themselves, but for their relatives and friends based abroad. Lahore-based Muhammad Amir is one such person who has carried saag in cans when travelling to Toronto, Canada on special request by his hosts.
Huzaifa Hatim Ali of New Burhani Food Canners in Defence, Phase 5, Karachi shares there is no restriction on carrying canned food abroad but it has to be scanned at airports before it can be given clearance. The food canned by his company is carried by people to the US and Canada without any issues normally.
However, he says, in the present-day security scenario the possibility of customs and airport security staff getting suspicious, and opening up the sealed lids for inspection cannot be ruled out. “But this happens in extremely rare cases.”
Ali says popular food outlets and chains have set up their own plants to pack their products, and sell these to customers. Karachi Haleem on Burns Road every day for example sells hundreds of cans, he adds.
He further adds, “But the issue is that customers prefer affordability. The canned food sold by outlets and food companies is quite expensive, so they bring food from these outlets to us instead and get it packed at nominal price.”
This option best suits people travelling in groups as they can book their baggage collectively and carry canned food that weighs as much as their collective un-availed carriage allowance. In a foreign land where a single cooked meal can cost up to $10 to $20, one can of quality food can serve four people adequately, he concludes.