City Hangouts – Haji’s Malbari hotel, Lyari

Malbari hotels were once an integral part of Karachi’s cafe culture. Just like Irani cafes, they defined a set of aesthetics, sensitivities and a particular type of experience despite them belonging to different owners. At turn of the century, the fast growing city of Karachi attracted people from all over the subcontinent. As the legend (and cliche) goes, Karachi became a melting pot of cultures and well, cuisine. People of Malabar had a significant representation and they were established in Karachi by the time of partition. Some of them stayed back and run chai khanas and eateries though they were popularly called hotels despite them having no guestrooms. If you read Urdu fiction of 50s and 60s, you will find many reference to ‘malbari hotel ki chai’, hinting that there were far many of them which disappeared as Malbaris moved abroad for greener pastures later.

Just like Irani cafes, Malbari hotels have been replaced with ubiquitous chai dhaba corners around Karachi. While new chai dhabas may have their own charm, they are still a product of modern times. The old world calm has been replaced with speed or often, frenzy. While the food may taste good, the conversations around it seem to have dwindled.

Haji’s Malbari hotel in Muhammad Ali Mohalla is a fine example of a Malbrari hotel’s charm. My friends in Lyari had already convinced me to take this journey. They tell me that it is the oldest and finest Malbari Hotel and it’s daal and paratha is the best in town. I reach there around noon on a Saturday. The street outside is broken and dirt and filth flies with the wind. It takes sometime before my eyes adjust when I step inside from burning heat outside. The first impression: the place is neat and clean for its surroundings. There are freshly painted wooden shelves on the walls where merchandise is displayed. These shelves adorned walls in both Irani and Malbari hotels but have disappeared since as as the ceiling height has reduced in newly constructed commercial buildings. I find hotel crowded with people who work in the vicinity. There’s a big counter on the right where I find hotel’s manager. He tells me that Haji sahab will come during the evening but he himself is well aware of the significance of the hotel he manages. He tells me that the hotel is more than 70 years old, setup a little before the partition. It has been operational since, surviving all the good and bad that this city has witnessed. It was not far off from one of infamous Lyari gangwar zones. The hotel survived it and business has been great since.

Haji’s Malbari hotel’s primary appeal is simplicity of its food. Something about it which reminds customers of ghar ka khana. While the more popular items are daal makhani and goli paratha, we try anda chana and daal fry and find it equally worth of praise. In the far corner of hotel, I am sharing the bench with two daily wage earners. They have paint on their clothes all over. They are full of stories and chat till they pay the bill and leave. I sit leisurely for another fifteen minutes or so. It’s 330 by then and the lunch rush has subsided. Waiters take a break and have lunch themselves. Haji Sahab has still not arrived but I have a feeling that I will be coming to this place many a times in future and leave to come back another day.

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Categories: City Hangouts

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2 Comments on “City Hangouts – Haji’s Malbari hotel, Lyari”

  1. Zafar Ibrahim
    September 22, 2019 at 8:16 pm #

    dwindling conversations . . .

    Very good article.

  2. September 22, 2019 at 8:24 pm #

    Thank you Karachi-walla for taking us to this authentic “Malabari hotel’ in a part of old historic Karachi, which took me back to days when I lived in Karachi half a century ago, when such charming “chai khana” / “tea shops” were an integral part of the growing city’s restaurant scene. These establishments are an authentic part of the city , and they fit like a gem in Karachi’s colorful cultural mosaic . They still add many colours to Karachi’s vibrant cultural life. Thank you for sharing. You are doing a great service to Karachi’s culture and the city’s living history. Thank you and more power to you.

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