As Lahore breaks its Ramadan fast at sunset, the city comes to life with food and festivity. Matt Colautti is hungry for more.
'It's the best view in the country, maybe even in all of Asia," says Iqbal Hussain, the owner of Cooco's Den. It's a big statement, but sitting in a kingly corner of the restaurant's rooftop terrace in the Old City of Lahore, it's easy to believe him. Certainly, there is no better view of Badshahi Mosque, the largest in the world, and its massive courtyard. It's said that 100,000 people can pray here. Children play cricket against its southern wall, the red Mughal-era brick glowing crimson in the sunset. A breeze descends from the north, taking the edge off the fierce summer humidity.
Cooco's Den is an institution in Lahore, Pakistan's lively cultural capital of more than 10 million people in the north-east. Climbing the marbled spiral staircase to the roof, visitors pass elegant foyers filled with framed prints of dancing women painted by Hussain, the long-time owner, and past tasteful yet quirky sculptures on the terrace. The art is a fitting reminder that this old haveli, or family mansion, backs on to Lahore's red-light district - though these days it's more focused on making shoes.
Yet like most restaurants in Pakistan, no one is eating here. Or drinking. It is the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims around the world undertake the admirable yet unenviable task of avoiding food, water, cigarettes, even curse words while the sun is in the sky. Ramadan began this week and ends about August 18. Air-raid sirens from mosques throughout the city echo each other, signalling the arrival of sunset and the welcome end to another day of fasting. Within minutes, the tables at Cooco's Den are full of food for Iftar, the name of the first meal that breaks the fast every day during Ramadan. I'm eager to join the locals - for a few days at least, I'm happy to be following the eating pattern of almost a quarter of the world's population.
The restaurant's overlapping terraces are occupied tonight by Lahore's upper class. Two men in suits sit nearby at a table almost overflowing with dishes. Cooco's is well regarded by travellers, but tonight I'm the only foreigner here.
I begin the evening's feast with saag goshat, a spicy spinach curry served with rice, and finish with a spiced fruit salad called fruit chaat, a favourite dish for this time of year.
The streets of Lahore are virtually abandoned for the short time it takes to eat such a meal. Hussain says the restaurant crowd will return in earnest about the 10th day of Ramadan, after most people have hosted and been hosted for Iftar by various friends and family.
Having always associated fasting with a time of suffering, I'm surprised by how much people in Lahore appear to look forward to this time of year. It's not unlike the Christmas season in Christian countries, when weekends are packed with dinners and old friends. On the first day of Ramadan I stop at a petrol station about sunset, looking for a drink. Instead, the affable owner, Mohammad Yasin, invites me to join his staff for an Iftar of cold drinks and a delicious chicken handi, one of Pakistan's most popular curries. The basket of still-warm chapatti, the ubiquitous flatbread that accompanies most meals, empties quickly as we mop up the last of it. "Thank you for enjoying our hospitality," Yasin says, in absolute sincerity, as I leave. He says it is desirable to share Iftar with as many people as possible. For the remainder of the month, his business will serve food to its staff, customers, and visitors.
Fasting during the daylight hours is easier than I expect, even in the hot, long days of summer. The difficulty for a traveller - for anyone, really - isn't the lack of food so much as the absence of water. But as a foreigner and a non-Muslim, I confess that I cheat. On several occasions I buy ice-cold water from parched shop owners and search for a hiding place to drink. It is polite, though not a legal requirement, that one refrains from consuming food and water in public during Ramadan.
There are, however, easier and airconditioned ways to indulge during Ramadan. High-end restaurants serve food all day. The atmospheric Fujiyama restaurant at the Avari Hotel has a Japanese menu in one of the last places you'd expect to find good sushi. The restaurant's teppanyaki bars draw crowds at night, and a lunch of donburi and gyozas here is exquisite.
During the evening hours of Ramadan, shortly after sunset, the city comes to life. Food markets materialise in the streets, smoke billows from barbecues towards fluorescent lights, and everywhere people are in high spirits, eating the curries and drinking the fruit juices they may have been thinking about since dawn. The food is fresh - it hasn't been sitting out all day - and the options are plentiful.
To sample the local street fare, I head to "Food Street", a short block outside the Old City, sandwiched between crumbling colonial-era buildings. I start with a rack of lamb, spiced and cooked over an open flame and served with chapatti. It's followed a few stalls further with vegetable samosas and chicken pakoras, two delicious fried snacks. A quick stop for chai and there's still room for the spiral sugar treat of jalebis.
As I wander back to my hotel, I pass an army of chicken shawarma stalls and shops smelling of biryani. Despite a long month of hunger, everywhere I look is a celebration of food.
Thai Airways has a fare to Lahore from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1250 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Bangkok (about 9hr), then to Lahore (13hr); see www.thaiairways.com. This fare allows you to fly back from another sub-continent city. Australians require a visa for stays of up to 90 days.
Hotel Avari, comfortable and with a swimming pool, is in the city centre, at 87 Shahrah-e-Quaid-e-Azami. Double rooms cost from $US130 ($128) a night; see avari.com/hotel-avarilahore.html.
Ramadan started this week and ends about August 18.
Cooco's Den faces the south wall of Badshahi Mosque, at 2168-9A, Roshnai Gate, Fort Road, Old City. Dinner for two costs about $US15.
Dinner at Fujiyama, inside the Avari Hotel, costs about $US40.
The Australian government advises travellers to "reconsider their need" to travel to Pakistan due to the high threat of terrorist attack, kidnapping, sectarian violence and an unpredictable security situation.