From Kabul To Kolkata, Food Changes -- And Stays The Same : The Two-Way Observations on the food along the Grand Trunk Road.
NPR logo From Kabul To Kolkata, Food Changes -- And Stays The Same

From Kabul To Kolkata, Food Changes — And Stays The Same

NPR correspondents are taking The Two-Way with them along the historic Grand Trunk Road that stretches from the Bay of Bengal in the east to the Hindu Kush mountains in the west, across the vast Indian subcontinent.

Their reporting along the way can be heard and read in a Morning Edition series on the radio and web about life along the route that focuses on the lives and hopes of young people. We've been getting frequent reports from them since April 14. We have an archive of all of the team's posts.

One of many delicacies available on the Grand Trunk Road. John Poole/NPR hide caption

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John Poole/NPR

One of many delicacies available on the Grand Trunk Road.

John Poole/NPR

By Nicole Beemsterboer

"Food is an essential part of the seduction of traveling on the Grand Trunk Road," Pushpesh Pant, author of Food Path: Cuisine Along the Grand Trunk Road, says.

I'd have to agree.

My packed lunch on the road included parathas the size of Frisbees: layers of unleavened bread, mixed with spices — I recognized fennel, garlic and green chilies, fried in ghee, or clarified butter. Potatoes are often layered in the dough, and the ones we had on the road were wrapped around an omelet. A mint yogurt sauce cooled down the spices. We didn't have a thermos of tea with us, but I'm told that's the only thing missing from a traditional Indian picnic.

Yes, we're in Pakistan, but before partition this was all one country, with one cuisine, and today it's the most obvious example of the two countries' shared history.

On our first night here, dinner began with paani puri, crisp puffs filled with chickpeas and sweet tamarind sauce. We filled the puffs with spiced broth and popped them into our mouths, causing a taste explosion. In India, paani puris are popular street fare. At Cuckoo's Den in Lahore, we had dahl, or stewed lentils, roti, a very thin, flat bread, and biryani, a rice-based dish with different spices, meats and vegetables. (You can get the same thing in India.) The halva I had for breakfast the other day was a very sweet variation on oatmeal, popular all over South Asia, and the naan, arguably the best leavened bread ever, is everywhere.

As the title of Pushpesh Pant's book would suggest, Food Path tracks how food changes — and stays the same — from Kabul to Kolkata. (He and his co-author, Huma Mohsin, traveled west-to-east on the GT Road. We traveled east-to-west.) It's peppered with mouth-watering recipes from across South Asia.

Pant is Indian and has never crossed the border, Mohsin lives in Peshawar, in northwest Pakistan. She told NPR that when they were putting the book together, her editor called to say that the spices she was using were the same as those in India.

Did she have any others?

"No, I didn't have anything different," she says. "Because every spice is the same. It is one family, one thing."

Garam masala, coriander, tamarind, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, cashewnut, jaggery, saffron and cumin, to name only a few, exist on each side of the border, uniting both nations. Yes, you'll hear different languages and music in India, you'll see different cloths and colors, even different script on road signs, but if you close your eyes, you'll smell the same spices and taste the same foods.

On the road to the ancient ruin sites in Taxila, a town about 20 miles northwest of Islamabad, there is a stretch of road with tiny shops that sell stone art, bowls and vases with bright jewels. Amid them are the stonecutters themselves, using giant circular saws or miniature hammers to cut stone taken from the quarries nearby. Everything is covered in a gray dust, and save for the hum of the saw, you feel as if you've stepped back in time. One shop the size of a closet has a display of mortar and pestles for sale on a table out front. They're 200 rupees, less than $2.50. I dig into my bag and choose one with a creamy, brown color. All this eating is making me want to cook.

You can follow producer Nicole Beemsterboer on Twitter, @nprnicole