Winter and seafood go hand in hand and there’s nowhere better to tie the knot in Pakistan than Karachi. The coastal city is a hub of sea food, served pricey in fancy restaurants but serving the real deal in a place like Hassan Square, in the heart of Gulshan. I wouldn’t call it street food, rather road side food, because the entire row of little restaurants lines the main road, like an assembly of brightly lit town criers, making the experience authentic and memorable. It’s also a little daunting, especially for faint hearted drivers, because navigating and parking in this area can be a challenge; the crowds can be a little overwhelming too. But once you’re parked and walking along, looking for the ideal shop amidst the dozens of little fish vendors, you’ll find yourself in sea food wonderland.
We found parking space in front of a shop called Qafeel Lajawab Fish Point and decided to ask for a tasting before we would park our seafood-starved souls at the makeshift outdoor sitting area. One super crispy, lemony mushka later, we were dragging chairs to a relatively quiet corner, literally salivating for dinner to be served. There were four of us and we ordered one fried mushka each, one fried pomfret for sharing and half a kilo fried shrimps, which were served on skewers. Sajid, the shop owner, also served us a grilled version of the same pomfret, for tasting and feedback.
It’s interesting that the marinade and batter for all varieties of fish on the menu – from mushka, white pomfret, black pomfret, beckti, Irani pomfret, heera and more – was the same. It was a secret recipe of 15 ingredients, Sajid explained, adding that he buys the fish from the fishery every morning and then prepares it himself. The batter may have been the same for fried fish but the texture and flavor of each fish was distinct, he explained.
Indeed it was. The mushka was a lighter, flakier fish with a crispy masala batter that had heat but stopped short of being spicy. Ribbons of steam rose as we broke the fish apart, allowing it to cool off. It came with a paper thin roti, wedges of lemon and extra masala but all one needed was fingers that could brave the hot fish. The prawns were as delicious as everything deep fried will be but didn’t really add any value to the meal. They were 1600 rupees a kilo and we could have done without spending this extra 800 rupees on our 2300-rupee bill, which was super affordable for four people. The mushka was 250 rupees a piece and pomfret around 600 rupees a piece.
The grilled fish was surprisingly good. If we were thinking that the taste profile was dependent on the fact that the fish was fried, we were proven wrong. The smokiness on the grilled fish was amazing and all we needed was a fresh salad and chutney to complete the meal. Unfortunately, you won’t find anything as fancy as a palatable salad or chutney at Hassan Square. Foodies from Lahore must be familiar with a radish-imli chutney served at the iconic Bashir Darul Mahi; that’s what we craved.
The chutney that came with the fish was not something we were willing to risk. Watery and spicy, it looked dodgy. The water, a dubious plastic bottle called Hydo, also didn’t look fit for consumption, as neither did the plastic jugs and dirty glasses that came on each table. We opted for cold drinks, quietly suspicious of their authenticity too but then one needs something to wash down a hearty meal. Next time we would carry our own water, we decided.
Back to Hassan Square and the fish, the vendors shared how their stalls were threatened by the government’s anti-encroachment drive. Some had even been torn down and their tables had been scattered here and there, here being uneven pavements and there being the roadside curbs where customers would inhale monoxide fumes with their dinner. My point: this strip of vendors is Karachi’s heart and soul; it’s culinary gold. Some food lover and angel investor should put time and money in creating a food street in the area and relocating these small businessmen, who have decades of experience, to a new and prosperous future where tourists would travel to Karachi to experience the city’s culture of street sea food.