Pakistani food is rich, packed full of spice, generous with ghee, and unbelievably tasty.
In this list of the 21 dishes to eat in Pakistan, I’m going to share with you the best dishes I tried during my trip to Pakistan.
Get ready for some serious Pakistani flavor and regional specialties. Enough introductions, lets get to all the dishes.
To start this list off right, I just have to talk about Nihari.
This dish is truly a game-changer for me when it comes to Pakistani cuisine. I would easily consider this among the best breakfasts I have ever had anywhere in the world.
Nihari begins as a heap of dry spices frying in vegetable oil and animal fat. The meat ingredients follow (most commonly beef shank), and a very healthy portion of Desi Ghee (home-made local clarified butter). The slow-cooking stew is then stirred altogether in a glorious cauldron of a pot.
The consistency is oozing and thick, so full of ultra-tender meat chunks literally floating in desi ghee. It has a deep red color from the spice and infused ghee.
Eaten from communal plate-trays, you garnish the Nihari from a side-plate of fragrant sliced ginger, spicy green chilies, and a squeeze from a fresh lime or two.
In Lahore you can try nihari at Waris Nihari, and in Karachi, I would highly recommend Javed Nihari.
2. Kabuli Pulao
Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, lies just a few hours from the KP Province (North-Western border) of Pakistan. Imagine Silk Road traders bringing over the very first dishes of Kabuli Pulao to eat right here in Western Pakistan.
Pulao can be made with any size grain of rice, which the chef always fries in oil while stirring in large amounts of dry spices. Usually, there will be a chunk of mutton or beef meat, sometimes an entire leg, at the heart of each massive batch.
Saffron gives the rice taste and color, but typically the spices are milder than biryani. Whole cloves of cardamom and golden sultana raisins give off a beautifully sweet aroma, and at larger restaurants it may include peanuts and even pistachios as a garnish.
You can recognize pulao on the street in its absolutely huge stainless steel cooking vessel, a unique, bell-like shape, often resting at a curious 45-degree angle.
Kabuli Pulao smells gorgeous, looks beautiful, and of course tastes incredible as well. A perfect dish for lunch, walking around the lively street atmosphere of any of Pakistan’s large, bustling cities, especially common in and around Peshawar.
Karahi is one of the best of all Pakistani food, and is dear to the hearts of all Pakistanis. You can find Karahis cooking in the smallest roadside shop, or in the Palatial kitchen of a local Rajah.
The dish takes its name from the black, iron, scoop-shape pan. Usually a karahi curry is made with goat, but also commonly with chicken or even shrimp. The metal dish can then be its own serving bowl, sizzling hot coming straight to the center of your table.
Most Pakistani karahi recipes start with tomatoes, onions, and some type of animal fat. It’s that tomato broth that gives each Karahi its ultra-umami magic, so full of smokiness, tender chunks of meat, and a whole lot of fat – from the meat, the ghee, and the occasional dollop of cream.
The tools of choice for cooking this dish are a massive pair of pliers to grip the pan, and a metal spatula to move meat around. Every pan is cooked over flaming high heat, and the chef’s motion follows a steady working rhythm – add oil, meat, count to three, stir. More oil, grip the pan to rapidly add spices, move the entire dish to a serving tray, then breathe (chef wipes a dripping brow).
This is an iconic dish of Pakistan, and can be found throughout the country.
In Lahore, Butt Karahi is mandatory, and we had an insanely good Shrimp Karahi at the Dua Restaurant in Karachi, lounging outdoors in a seating area the size of a playing field.
Haleem is an incredibly hearty dish made with a combination of barley, local wheat varieties, and chana (chickpeas). This dish shows the influence on Pakistan that comes from the Middle East, and people have been enjoying Haleem here for centuries.
Slow-cooking, for up to an entire day, on very low heat is a technique used to give haleem its warm, home-cooked flavor.
Onions (fried separately), mint leaves, both green and dry chilies, and then some masala spices go into the mother-pot, and a final garnish comes from generous squeezes of lemon juice at the end.
This is a great food to have in the morning, or for an early lunch. Its very rich, full of calories to keep one’s energy up throughout the day. The flavor in a good bowl of haleem can be so rich that simply eating it with roti, and then sipping on a few cups of milk or green tea, can leave you perfect and content.
Enjoy a wonderful meal of Haleem in the Old City area of Lahore, you can watch the video here. I was blown away and surprised how good it was!
5. Halwa Puri
If there’s one special Pakistani food breakfast that loved by all, it would have to be halwa puri.
Known for causing feelings of extreme satisfaction, even to the point of laziness, for the remainder of the day. Halwa Puri is one of the most common breakfasts you’ll have in Pakistan.
The puris are thinly rolled dough, forming endlessly ultra-crispy layers, the folding style of which causes it to puff up immediately when submerging in boiling oil or desi ghee.
Halwa is then a sweet pudding like dish made from semolina which is served along with the puris. However, along with halwa and puri, you also typically get some chickpea curry.
Grab a crunchy handful of hot puri, and scoop up as much of whichever side dish is in reach. Lick your fingers, smile, and repeat. You can alternate bites of sweet halwa and spicy chickpeas.
Like most meals in Pakistan, this combo is perfected by finishing with at least one cup of dud pathi (milk-only tea, no water).
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6. Mutton Korma
For a classic meal of Punjab cuisine it would be mandatory to include at least one dish with mutton – and its likely to be a korma curry – just as beautiful as the one you see here.
Mutton korma is hearty and rich, including incredibly tender chunks of sheep or goat meat, and a dark red blend of spices.
From the top of Pakistan’s Himalayas to the bottom of the Indian Sub-Continent, a large portion of planet earth’s population is probably dreaming of their mother’s mutton curry right this minute. We had some amazing mutton curries in Pakistan, one specifically if you’re in Lahore, don’t miss the mutton korma at Khan Baba restaurant.
Another dish commonly found throughout the Punjab Province of Pakistan is Saag. The dishes name simply means ‘mustard greens,’ and there can be any number of other ingredients cooked along with it.
The mustard greens are slow-cooked until its leaves are so soft they’re literally breaking apart, it almost resembles a stew its so gooey. Seasoning includes mint, coriander, and chili flakes, and usually includes generous amounts of glorious desi ghee.
(You may know the more internationally-famous version, saag paneer, made with soft cheese. In Pakistan though, you can come across many with more brave additions. In the Northern town of Skardu, enjoy an incredible version made with huge chunks of mutton meat, and the saag dish from the Peshawari Grandfather in the photo above was even sour (maybe made with mustard greens?), very health-ful feeling and using minimal seasonings, and he serves it cold! Refreshing.)
After all the gloriously heavy meat meals in Pakistan, you will love the cool and refreshing tradition of enjoying lassi after breakfast, lunch, or really any time possible.
Lassi is simply the name of the beverage, so many of the variations in English will simply be written as ‘salt lassi,’ or ‘sweet lassi,’ or a fruit variation with mango.
The style most Pakistani lassi makers use involves making the drink from scratch. Very cool to watch each cup of milk transform, versions including cream or even butter even allow you to even watch the chef churn it all by hand.
Some can be extremely simple, made with nothing but yoghurt, some sugar, and ice water, or others (like the version pictures above) include layer upon layer of ingenious flavor and texture combinations.
For the richest lassi I’ve ever had in my life, head to Chacha Feeka Lassi peray wali – it’s hard to believe how rich, creamy, and incredibly satisfying their lassis are.
9. Tikka Kebab
Few dishes could possibly have the people of Central Asia welcoming you to eat and enjoy more than Pakistani tikkas. Tikka is a special type of ‘kebab,’ the main thing being that tikka uses larger chunks of marinated meat (kebab meat is usually minced and then seasoned, and formed onto the skewer by hand)
Since back when it was a daily meal of nomadic herders, or one using an ancient Kings’ fatty lambs, all the way to the present day mega-city road-side BBQs – this truly is an Ultimate food of all Humankind.
A fore-most food on the mind of anyone traveling in (or native to) this entire part of the world, the time-less and ever-simple practice eating skewers of chunks of meat cooking over open flame has never, and will never cease to satisfy.
I have been lucky enough to enjoy meat like this in many countries, and Pakistan instantly joins the ranks of the Greats.
Middle-Eastern style kebab in Dubai, in Israel, in Turkey, modern variations served as far East as my own home in Thailand, and then of course most recently in the wonderful city of Samarkand, Uzbekistan; these are all wonderful food memories.
10. Chapshurro (or Chapshoro)
Moving on now to more unique, local cuisines, from Pakistan’s northern people groups (Gilgit Baltistan), the first thing you absolutely have to try is Chapshurro.
‘Chap,’ just means meat, and these wonderful hotplate cakes often contain yak meat. These cook on a large convex steel/iron plate, and are the perfect snack for a traveler when the weather starts to cool.
Seasoning them simply with onions and pepper, a sweet carrot, or maybe a small locally grown tomato, these will be the only vegetable ingredients. Using local species of wheat, the specific dough recipe, feeling, and consistency can vary widely from town to town.
This was one dish always highly recommended by locals throughout the Gilgit Baltistan region. I thought it was a perfect example of the diversity there is to discover among the food from all the various parts of Pakistan.
One of the more famous places to find this dish is right along the highway, driving from Gilgit to the Hunza Valley, just past the breath-takingly pretty Ataabad Lake. You can see some great footage here from this incredible day of our trip.
Another one of the best Pakistani foods from Gilgit Baltistan is called dowdo, which is a great dish for warming oneself after an outing in the cool mountain air. A thick creamy soup full of wheat noodles and mustard greens, the noodles can be anywhere from spaghetti-thin to entire-pastry-size width.
Sometimes including shreds of carrot or thin slices of potato, coming in from the cold to find a table full of steamy bowls of Dowdo is just a wonderful comfort food.
This is a traditional dish of the Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) Province, a semi-autonomous region North of Islamabad, the capital city of Pakistan (and only since 1974 has this area even been a part of Pakistan). Bordering the high plateaus of the Pamir Mountains, this is an area full of craggy glaciers, unique cultures, and of course food ideal for both warming and energizing the hardy people who call it home.
(Note: Be on the lookout for a very special version of Dowdo including Maltash, the crazily sour home-made hard cheese (which has been linked to the extreme longevity of Hunza Valley peoples). In a small town near Sost, after a chilly visit to the Khunjerab National Park, I now think of this as one of the best ever cold-weather meals!)
12. Gyal (or Go-Lee)
More of a savory dish than the sweet pancake it appears to be, Gyal is another hearty dish of the Gilgit-Baltistan Province.
Using fine flour of a locally growing species of red or brown buckwheat, the cakes fry on a black iron flat plate in nothing but the most incredibly fragrant apricot seed oil.
From the apricot oil to yak butter, from walnuts to thick almond paste, each family and village seem to have their own lovely recipes for filling these gyal. One thing they share though, is that gyal are always organic – ingredients for each recipe come from produce in and around each family’s home village.
Many recipes and versions of this dish stretch back hundreds of years, and at one home we were fortunate to visit, the host family made four different varieties for us in a single meal.
(Note: The plural of Gyal is Gyaling, and this is how it will probably be written on a menu.)
13. Paya (or Paaya)
In the Urdu language, Paya simply means ‘legs,’ and this happens to be one of the greatest of all Pakistani foods.
The recipe is basic, but quite complex to prepare. The incredible flavor in it comes from the fact that it slow cooks for hours – usually since the night before the restaurant serves it.
The basic ingredients include onions, red oil with curry spices, and absolutely giant bowl-fulls of bone-in goat legs and feet. Stewing for hours causes the tendons and cartilage surrounding the joint to become juicy and easily chewable, and the red curry broth elevates the entire flavor to incredible levels.
This meal is always eaten with a pile of fresh, hot roti bread. It’s an oily, meaty, deliciously slimy experience, something in Pakistan you just won’t want to miss.
(FYI: There is hot debate as to which of Pakistan’s larger cities owns the best version of paya, and I have to say I can’t help them here – both the Lahore version and the one I had in Peshawar – both were stunningly good.)
Biriyani can often look like a dish of Pulao, but from the start the two are actually quite different. Pulao has all of its ingredients fried together in oil (mixing all the flavors in each bite), whereas each spoonful of steamed biriyani can be unique (ingredients are separate).
Pre-steamed rice is layered into a massive cooking vessel, each time sifted over with dry spice combinations of cumin, nutmeg, cardamom, and of course turmeric. It is then sprinkled with a final layer of toppings, usually carrots or peanuts, before being served with a few strips of meat.
With each layer added individually, there is no stirring or mixing of ingredients until the rice is on your plate. You’re basically served a cross-section of the entire cooking pot, and you can see and enjoy each flavor of the dish.
As this dish can be a bit dry, it is usually accompanied by a side dish of raita (light yoghurt). A plate of biriyani is just perfect for a mid-day snack walking around the streets of a bustling city in Pakistan.
15. Chapli Kebab
Chapli kebab is not only best of all Pakistani food, but it’s one of the world’s greatest foods.
Sometimes known as “Peshawari Kebab,” this is a dish that is literally pilgrimage worthy. I can’t speak of it any more highly – its on my list of “foods worth buying a plane ticket just to eat.”
There is so much flavor in this hand-formed deep-fat-fried patty, it just boggles the mind.
Often made with buffalo meat, the mince is kneaded through with dry spices and often a few fresh ingredients, like white onions and cilantro. Some versions add tomato, but wherever we had them I could always taste cumin seeds, wonderfully strong black pepper, and often hints of cardamom.
Popular in street-food stalls throughout Pakistan, you’ll probably find the best chapli kebabs at Taru Jabba, outside the town of Peshawar (Western province of Khyber-Pahtunkwa).
I have no shame in admitting to a full-on chapli addiction, this dish is simply incredible, and I will never look at a hamburger patty the same way again.
Sajji can include many types of meat, but usually it’s made with chicken. The artful tactics used in display do a great job in advertising for the grill-master. If you’re like me, you may find yourself being drawn over in a trance, floating from across the street.
Just walking into any shop that serves sajji should already be getting you excited. Your meat dish displayed proudly like a trophy, speared through and held aloft, dripping juices falling and sizzling on a huge bed of hot coals.
Very little seasoning is used as its all about two things – the charcoal heat, and quality of the meat. As with most Pakistani food restaurants, sajji is served with a stack of piping hot roti bread, straight from the tandoor oven.
We had this wonderful dish a few times, my favorite was in Lahore eating sajji with biriyani sitting street-side, enjoying the food with owner of Khalifa Balochi Sajji himself.
One of the most cost-efficient ways to have a filling snack, but that doesn’t mean that chaat aren’t amazing dishes on their own.
The idea of a chaat is a delicious but filling snack, cost-efficient and quick, eaten standing or on the go – often a popular Pakistani street food.
A dish of incredible variety and more than just a food name. Chaat includes style, there is definitely a culture surrounding its creation, a simple but genius dish.
Some chaat begin with a bed of chick peas, which get a covering of sour, spicy, or cooling sauces on top. A final layer of some type of crunchy ingredient, and the dish is ready to go.
You can find fried dough, peanuts, even something modern like crisps/potato chips. Ask for ‘the works,’ and you might be getting tamarind sauce, cool mint yoghurt, or an impressive assortment of fresh cut veggies like white onion, cucumbers, or red beets.
Very few foods are more dear to Pakistan than a simple plate of chaat. You’re likely to find this dish ahead of long lines of people daily on pretty much every main road in the country – we enjoyed chaat from one amazing man’s cart, masterfully serving the same recipes from the same market street for his entire life – more than 50 years in Lahore.
18. Brain Masala
The spiced-to-perfection plate of Brain Masala contains amounts of flavors that will live on in my dreams.
One of the best street food items I had during my trip to Peshawar, I almost wanted to start an import-export business venture on the spot.
Made on a hot iron skillet, tomato sauce and masala spices are what add the majority of flavor. Green onions, cilantro, and red chili powder go into the dish, and finally the brains are scrambled (you don’t want to burn the brains).
Definitely an off-the-beaten-path item in Pakistan (this one in Peshawar, an amazing place), but well-worth the effort to find if you’re there.
Many of the signature dishes of Pakistan will draw you in with their big tastes and smells.
Katakat is special though – its a dish that first plays on your ears!
The dish gets its very name from the sound the chef makes while mixing all the different ingredients on a huge iron hot plate. The sharp ‘clangs’ and ‘pings’ against the wide metal pan cause the rapid-fire “kata-kata-kat…” sound, reverberating sound as far as the chef can send it.
The standard version of katakat is made with goat kidneys, hearts, and testicles. However, one of the most delicious Pakistani foods in this guide that I tried was a unique version of katakat made with fish in Karachi.
Pro Tip: Dump a liberal spoonful of dark green chutney, covering your choice piece of meat. Take some freshly cut red onions and a whole spicy chili for good measure, and grab the entire bite in the largest handful of roti bread you can manage.
While halwa puri is a special and beloved breakfast food in Pakistan, paratha is the most common everyday breakfast.
In its simplest and most common form, it’s a ball of dough which is rolled into a circle with flaky layers, and shallow fried over a hot plate in a generous amount of oil or ghee. You’ll find other versions, like for instance an aloo paratha, stuffed in the center with potatoes, onions, and masala seasonings.
One of the greatest things about eating a paratha is the flaky layers of dough, both gooey and crispy all at the same time.
The best parathas I ate in Pakistani were home-made in a village in Punjab, Pakistan.
Local Tip: always eat your paratha with a cup of chai, or even better, dud pathi (only milk tea). Take a little piece of your paratha, and dunk it into your tea before consuming.
21. Bun Kebab
And finally, THE Bun Kebab.
Its been told to me by Pakistani local friends more than a once, “few things are more purely Karachi than an afternoon of Bun Kebabs.”
Imagine the best hamburger slider you’ve ever had, and serve it with a side of mint chutney. Add a bonus topping of fried egg, and pile each layer on top of each other while cooking, without letting any of it leave the frying pan.
Small but dense patties are dunked in a lentil, yogurt, and egg batter, then quickly pressed by hand onto the large frying pan. The buns themselves are always white bread, and cook to a light crispiness sitting directly beside both the patties and the eggs.
Rounds of Bun Kebabs come out as fast as the prep-chef can collect them, and they aways come with a side of red onions. That forebodingly dark but beautifully pungent mint chutney is a mandatory addition to your meal, and you’re going to want to make sure you get an entire plate of it to go with your Bun Kebabs.
This dish is a mainstay of Pakistani street food all over Karachi (Pakistan’s largest city), but the fabulous Hanif Super Biryani & Bun Kabab takes this hand-held bun treat to All-Star status. You won’t be surprised to see people queueing up to order stacks of plates, even three at a time.
BONUS ITEM – Dud Pathi
It would be wrong to let the single beverage most dear to the heart of Pakistan fall from this ultimate Pakistani food guide.
Let alone its status as a beverage, it’s so popular that this tea might even be worth considering as a National Food of Pakistan.
Not a day of street food went by in our trip to Pakistan without one, but usually more like six or seven, glorious cups of this milk-only hot black tea. Sipping at the first light of dawn, or enjoying after a second (or third) dinner at the stroke of midnight, it is always the right time for dud pathi.
One of my favorite things during the time in Pakistan was spotting someone patiently waiting to cross a hopelessly busy street, carrying a pot of hot milk to help make someone else their cup of tea. Beautiful.
It also shows though, just how important tea is in Pakistan – and with good reason. The satisfaction that rests in each warm slurp is joyful, and there’s no better way to end a meal than with a round of cardamom infused, hot milk-only and no water, dud pathi tea.
I hope you have enjoyed reading about these dishes as much as I enjoyed discovering, and then devouring, each and every one of them.
Even more though, I hope that this list inspires you to travel yourself, go to Pakistan, and discover the very long list of foods that I didn’t have time to include in the short but delicious list above.
Thank you for reading, and again, if you haven’t seen the entire Pakistani food video series, I encourage you to watch them now.
Until next time, have a wonderful day, and happy eating!