It’s still dark and there is no traffic on the road. One can see occasional policemen manage a picket or look for miscreants. Elderly men head to mosques to offer fajr prayers. These are men who wake up much before fajr azaan to either read the Quran or socialise with peers in mosques. Younger ones appear after the call for prayer and leave early.
Since the traffic is thin, policemen stop and check every passing vehicle. They seem to be extraordinarily alert as, they believe, this is the time when criminals are on the loose and find it easy to escape.
Some of the small and big cars and motorbikes here on Sultanpura Road, near Hide Market in northern Lahore, have travelled a long distance, not just from far off parts of the city but also the adjoining districts like Kasur and Gujranwala — to have breakfast at Manno Siri Paya Shop.
In the business for the last 40 years, Manno’s clientele has swelled over time. He opens his shop around fajr and is done within the next couple of hours. On Sundays or on any public holiday his hours of business are even shorter — opening around 4am and closing an hour or so after. Often his siri (goat skull) paya (trotters) are booked in advance so he opens the shop only for delivery purposes.
The rush for siri paya at Manno’s has at times frustrated his regular customers to an extent that they have resorted to fighting and firing.
Manno’s is just one of the few breakfast dhabas in the city that open early for a limited time. The owners of such food joints neither extend their business hours nor set up branches in other parts of the city, perhaps, for fear of compromising the quality of their product.
Characteristically, there is always frenzy outside such shops — with customers shouting at the top of their voice to catch attention of the server.
Nasir Bhai Bong Paya Shop near Paisa Akhbar in Anarkali is not much different. Situated at a distance of hardly a few hundred feet from famous Waris Nihari Shop, this place also opens at fajr and closes within two hours. Here there is no concept of respectable sitting area or quality service. People huddle around and yell at the server to get quick service. There is no queue, no waiter to take orders. The fittest get what they want. They are the privileged ones.
Shahid Musa is a regular at Nasir Bhai Bong Paya Shop. He and his friends avoid dinner and sleep the night before the planned visit there. He is often asked by relatives, friends or acquaintances to treat them for paya at Nasir Bhai’s.
Musa says Nasir Bhai was short tempered, and would often get into trouble with customers, “in one such incident he was allegedly shot dead”. Nasir Bhai’s son and brother run the show at the shop today. Though the food tastes as good, the customers have learnt to be polite.
Desi murgh or organically-grown chicken is another delicacy that Lahoris relish. They prefer organic chicken over ones bred at poultry farms or the Misree (Egyptian) breed sold as desi murgh. Tara Butt Desi Murgh Chanay Shop on Railway Road, Gawalmandi, is a point where Lahoris think they will get the best value for money. To grab a piece of chicken accompanied with chanas and spiced with black pepper, customers throng the place really early. A little late and they miss the chicken piece and are left with only chanas.
Two more shops in Gawalmandi sell desi murgh — but only on Wednesdays and Thursdays. During the other days of the week, they sell siri paya.
Muhammad Shahbaz, son of Manno, says their food is well liked because they buy the choicest siri and paya. These are not abundantly available so they have to settle for less. Besides, he says, they clean them with hands and unlike many others do not use acids and chemicals. They use spices brought from Akbari Mandi and not the usual masala mix. “This care for the finer details really adds to the flavour.”
The list of dhabas that open early morning for breakfast is deliciously quite long. Haji Hameed Siri Paya Shop at Jallo Mor near Wahga border and Jaida Lassi Shop in Gumti Bazar are busy places where one feels the food is dished out for free. Imagine the victorious smile on the peoples’ faces after getting hold of their favourite food item. Also imagine the Lahori food fetish, even in odd hours and against many odds.