It all started with food. Creation of the world, that is. Eve couldn’t keep her hands off of that one delicious apple and here we are, a few millennia later, still a bit baffled about each new flavor we experience, and craving for the more familiar ones as if our life depended on it. Well, our lives do depend on food, but somewhere in the middle we all seemingly lost the plot. Living for food was an idea that caught on as civilizations rose and fell, so much so that gluttony was even chalked in as a deadly sin some two thousand years ago. Now, with the world’s population exceeding seven billion mouths to feed, resources dwindling, and even the most food secure nations falling prey to several different kind of ailments related to food consumption patterns (obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer to name a few), there is a call to be reasonable again. The solution? A farmers’ market with wholesome products. The good news? It has come to Lahore.
Have you ever wondered where the tomatoes you are putting in your salan or salad came from? Is it only dirt that covers your potatoes or something else, something your eyes can’t see? The lamb, the beef, the chicken and the mutton that you so joyfully consume and serve to family and friends – what went into the animals from which these prime cuts were obtained? How can you maximize on taste and nutrition without eating a cocktail of chemicals in the packaged stuff? It is for these reasons, and to introduce the traditionally gluttonous city of Lahore to a healthier lifestyle that Khaalis Food Market was started by entrepreneurs and business partners Rizwan Naeem and Asma Shah. Rizwan’s love for food and Asma’s concern for her family’s health compelled them to expand on an idea which has captured the imagination of Lahoris.
Khaalis Food Market is a farmers’ market where vendors selling fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry, spices, honey, the traditional ghee and much more are brought together under the proverbial “one roof”. The freewheeling event which doesn’t have a home (yet) caters to a section of the society that is sick and tired of “the artificial stuff” and wants healthier options when it comes to food. It is also a social venture which, as Rizwan puts it, was designed to inculcate a sense of community in Lahore’s disparate population, bringing together people who value food and like knowing where the ingredients are coming from. Asma Shah, who started out as a concerned mother wary of her young daughter’s eating habits, also insists that there are people who are dedicatedly growing organic fruits and vegetables and raising free range chicken and consuming their eggs, but they only do so for their families and, at most, their friends. Khaalis, for her, was a way to literally unearth vendors who could be compelled to grow organic produce in larger quantities to cater to a growing clientele base.
“Khaalis Food Market is a practical way to return to some of the old-timey goodness when we didn’t have to worry about chemicals, waste, additives, preservatives and other artificial things ruining food,” says Rizwan. “I did research and found that even the fruits and vegetables that we get are full of chemicals. They are grown in urea, pesticides and herbicides, and the water used to help them thrive has untreated chemical waste in it, particularly in Lahore’s environs,” adds Asma.
So far, three Khaalis events have been organized, each in a new location, with steadily increasing level of interest, vendor participation and patronage. The most recent event was a marker for Asma and Rizwan’s pensive words as nearly 45 vendors gathered in the vast grounds of a local school (Beaconhouse TNS) in Lahore and hundreds of families – with children and grandparents, even newborns, in tow – visited the stalls that had a variety of goods on offer. From organic and home grown vegetables, fruits and herbs to ostrich meat and exotic dips and salads, the variety of products was interesting enough to keep the visitors amused and make believers out of skeptics.
At a stall selling pots of fresh organic basil, Seher, a young medical student, was buying nearly half of the stock, citing her love for Italian food. “I didn’t think it would be so fragrant and fresh. Best part is, I get to buy the whole plant, which will keep thriving,” she added enthusiastically. Another buyer informed me that she stocked up on fresh figs and jalapenos at the last event. A small crowd was sampling ostrich meat burgers, which were apparently uniquely delicious. Umer, a rugby player, admitted that he had joked about the ostrich meat stall at the first Khaalis event but was now convinced it was the best alternative to traditional red meat because of high protein content.
This is exactly the kind of response Asma and Rizwan had envisioned when they conceived the idea of Khaalis. The market provides food enthusiasts with hard-to-find ingredients not easily available in Pakistan such as fresh figs, cherry tomatoes, avocadoes, kale, rocket, jalapenos, banana peppers, fresh mushrooms, celery, organic honey from and fresh cheeses to name a few. Allegations of things being overpriced are brushed off by both co-founders, who maintain that the vendors who participate in Khaalis Food Market are small growers whose produce and products are personally tended to and taken care of, available only in the proper season, and are far healthier than what people usually buy in cans. Asma is particularly somber about this and states that most vendors especially grow their produce for the market and, apart from charging a basic premium, neither vendors nor the organizers of Khaalis are interested in pricing their products exorbitantly. “The aim is to sell the products and produce at the end of the day. Good things come at a price but are not entirely out of reach,” she says.
According to Rizwan, his team is in touch with more than a hundred vendors who participate in the market on a rolling basis, when their produce and products are ready and available to be sold. Asma, on the other hand, is proud of the fact that Khaalis is partnering with a women’s collective supported by Aurat Foundation in Okara and Deepalpur who have committed to grow vegetables organically. We will buy the stock from them directly which will give them the benefit of selling their produce without the nuisance of dealing with a middleman as well.
The list of vendors involved with Khaalis Food Market includes entrepreneurial foodies such as Insha Bukhari of Hunger & Haw Hai blog/The Pantry (dips & snacks), Ghar Ki Murghi (fig jam, pre-made desi entrees), Salad Cauldron, Torsh Shirin (homemade kulfis, jams & pickles), Organic Delights (Almond & Elaichi sherbet), and the teams behind Manzoor Mehndi (offering organic henna), Bam-e-Bala Produce (whole wheat flour, desi ghee), The Ostrich Company (fresh and frozen ostrich meat products), PODA (handicrafts from underprivileged women) and Roshni Foundation (fresh bakery items and organic honey). At the event, these vendors were also joined by a few professional food vendors such as Wasabi (selling sushi) Hunter’s Cottage (selling game meat; rabbit) and the folks selling the distinctly un-organic boba tea, which was a hit with the younger crowd anyway.
Rizwan states that the organic food movement is in its infancy in Lahore. And while strict standards are maintained about the freshness and quality of items being sold, not all the vendors at Khaalis are selling 100% organic items. However, as Asma states, their aim is to go completely organic in the future, with a permanent store inspired by Whole Foods Market. The Khaalis team is currently working on taking the market to Islamabad next and is hopeful they’ll be able to inspire the whole lot of us to become conscious consumers who won’t ever take what goes into our mouths and to our stomachs for granted, and will fight for our right to eat good food.
Insha Bukhari of the Hunger & Haw Hai blog is an amateur chef and food writer who makes her prepared food products specially for selling at the Market under the name “The Pantry”. This is what she had to say about Khaalis and why she is a part of it:
“Being a vendor at Khalis is a fantastic experience! Because I’m primarily a food blogger, setting up The Pantry by Hunger & Haw Hai exclusively for Khalis Food Markets is a great way to meet readers and food fanatics alike to give them a taste of the food they see in the pictures. It’s also a great way to introduce people to products that aren’t otherwise available in the market. By the way, that’s why I insist on setting out tons of samples for folks to try before they buy. From a vendor’s perspective, I think the organic, home-grown and home-made movement is also creating a space and opportunity for small-scales and artisanal producers to bring their products into the market in a cost-efficient manner and develop a personal relationship with customers who actually care about what they’re consuming.”
A modified version of this article was published in The Express Tribune Magazine here.