At last, the Leather Jacket is served: an oblong of fragile white flesh sheathed in wrinkled skin. A shower of sparks erupts from the grill; billowing smoke renders the cooks as wraiths. In the darkness, lilting music drifts from tinny speakers: a lament by Abida Parveen, Pakistan’s Queen of Sufi song. Suddenly, I am gripped by an irrational certainty that—whatever the headlines might augur—Karachi is going to be okay.
Murders brought me to the city, once again. In the past six months, there has been a new spike in what are known here as “targeted killings”—drive-by shootings, usually carried out by gunmen on motorbikes, each a carefully calculated move in a blood-soaked game of Monopoly. Political parties; religious extremists; criminal gangs; Taliban militants: all are locked in a multi-sided turf war waged through murder, extortion and threats. The daily toll ebbs and flows to a mysterious rhythm; though everyone agrees that the city feels less and less safe. No-go zones expand like inkblots. Behind a facade of intoxicating bustle, Pakistan’s “city of light” is slowly turning into a city of invisible divides.
And then there is Biryani of the Seas. The outdoor restaurant sprung up a couple of years ago on a stretch of pavement at the foot of a mottled block of flats in Clifton, a wealthy district of palatial homes and high walls that is both far removed from – and encircled by – Karachi’s grittier suburbs, where life is less certain. As offices empty, a polite crowd comes here to sample some of the best seafood in the city. On good nights there’s the ghost of an Arabian sea breeze.
Syed Ali Raza Abidi, an affable scion of fish exporters, founded Biryani of The Seas in 2010, hiving off a fraction of the catch purchased each day by his family’s industrial-scale business to grill over charcoal then serve at a cluster of plastic tables. An unassuming Impresario, Abidi is to be found each evening overseeing the unhurried relaxed service, while his men work a simple kind of magic with Grouper, Barramundi, Red Snapper and Pangush.
Start with battered hoops of calamari and a buttery makhni made from white prawns – or penaeus indicus as Abidi, in aficionado mode, would insist on calling them. Sesame seeds give the dish ballast; a zing of fresh ginger ensures it hits some notes too. Scoop it up with warm garlic naan, its puffy, blistered surface seared shades of brown to black by the glowing embers.
Next comes a plate laden with Tiger prawns – charred, apostrophe-shaped monsters of serious succulence. The centrepiece, of course, is the Arabian Sea fish known as Leather Jacket – served on foil to preserve its feathery texture, and escorted by roughly chopped quarters of lemon. By rights, such an exquisite meal has no business being hawked on an unprepossessing stretch of sidewalk. For all the shadows gathering over Karachi, the unexpectedly delicate taste of a dish with a name like Leather Jacket is surely evidence for the existence of other, better-concealed charms.
A pause, and then Zafrani Shahi Tukra – the “Royal Dessert” – Pakistan’s answer to bread-and-butter pudding. One of Karachi’s widows has carved a lucrative niche for herself making the sweets for Abidi’s restaurant , and she is liberal with her saffron and almonds. Finally, mugs of sugary milk tea. There is no better fortification ahead of a journey into the Karachi underworld, and no more comforting reminder that however fast the murderous whirligig spins, all in the city will somehow be well.