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Food by VICE

The Kitchen Divides Pakistan's Rich and Poor

When visiting my extended family in Pakistan, I am hyper-aware of the differences between the rich and the poor. Even at home, the classes are separated as young, impoverished men cook meals in sweltering heat for their employers.

by Javaria Akbar
Jul 21 2014, 9:00pm

Photo by Javaria Akbar.

One night in Karachi, I was on my way home after after indulging in a huge meal at a local restaurant, and I saw a homeless man with no arms and legs. Suddenly, I felt utterly ashamed. Hungry, helpless, and alone, he rolled himself down the street, presumably on his way home. I went on my own way, feeling like a glutton, laden with guilt and self-reproach.

In Pakistan, like much of the third world, this is the status quo. The distance between the haves and the have-nots is clear and stark. The divide is apparent everywhere—on the streets, and even within the home.

On this particular long holiday, I was staying with some relatives who had a personal chef. They didn't need to be rich to afford domestic staff because securing cheap labour is commonplace. The majority of workers are extremely poor, illiterate, and often treated unfairly by their employers.

During my visits to Pakistan, I've met many of these personal chefs. Some were teenagers. Others were slightly older, and they would send their wages home to their wives and families who lived as far away as Bangladesh. They would prepare meals for large families from scratch in the searing heat, with sweat dripping from their brows and wet patches blooming through their shalwar kurtas as they would fry onions for dinner.

Photo by Javaria Akbar.

Cooks in an outdoor restaurant shack making naan to shred up and add to chicken broth.
Cook-in-kitchen_sized A teenage cook in a typical Peshawar kitchen frying snacks for his employers.

Meanwhile, the family would sit in an air conditioned room or enjoy the pleasant breeze of a high-powered ceiling fan. I, too, would delight in the privilege of not having to lift a finger. I once sat down to eat lunch in Karachi and the cook placed a hot roti on my plate. I'd eaten barely half when he returned to remove it and replace it with another. He would keep the cold, half-eaten roti for himself and eat it while sitting cross-legged on the dirty kitchen floor, but only after he had cleared away the dishes. His own plate and glass was stored separately to everyone else's. He wasn't allowed to use the household crockery.

These cooks would eat the leftovers of whatever was prepared that day, which often included chicken, vegetables, and rice, if they lived with a generous family. When they go back home to visit their villages, they eat only what they can grow themselves and afford. A typical meal might include rotis with yogurt, raw onions, and chillies. Sometimes they'll slaughter a chicken, which would serve as the base for a very watery broth that they could share between many.

I felt guilty asking the cooks to prepare anything for me and would always say no to tea and coffee – I couldn't bear the thought of them going back into the hot kitchen to make me a drink. My relatives, on the other hand, were completely at ease with requesting whatever took their fancy at any hour—and they did the same for their guests. My brother-in-law once mentioned to his hosts that he missed English chocolate while he was on his travels in the Sindh region. Later that evening he was presented with a bar of Dairy Milk. The cook had been sent out on a two hour mission to the nearest Cadbury stockist.

The domestic staff never have such luxuries. While middle-class Pakistanis go out for high tea, eat buttery pastries, visit ice cream parlors, snack on doughnuts and quaff coffee, their cooks eat cold chapattis and raw onions. They're not protected by labor laws nor guaranteed a minimum wage. In my extended family's house, it was often a teenage boy sleeping in living quarters the size of a single bed. He couldn't read or write. And he was expected to scrub the bathroom, clean the windows and occasionally babysit on top of his kitchen duties. He was just a kid.

But I also knew that my family would pay for his medicines and treatment if he ever got sick. They would buy him shoes and clothes. They would laugh and joke with him in the kitchen, and think him kind and responsible enough to care for their children.

With no benefit provisions for the poor, many employers act as a sort of safety net for their staff. My own grandmother and aunts paid for their chef's children to go to school, and one of the girls even earned a master's degree. But that ironically became a hindrance: She was so highly educated that her parents couldn't find a suitable match for her to marry within their village, and she became clinically depressed.

That perhaps exemplifies the strange middle ground that the privileged inhabit in Pakistan. On the one hand, as a Western visitor to Pakistan, I feel strange to be waited upon by someone who eats my leftovers from separate dishes. On the other, families like mine provide jobs and, hopefully, a decent wage and working conditions to people who might otherwise go begging, as the government offers little help for the country's poor. Pakistan has abandoned its social responsibility and is watching silently as the poverty-stricken many are bound by the old laws of servant tradition.

As someone who doesn't live there, I'm not accustomed to the usual state of affairs like the rest of my family. And I'm glad for that, because it makes me constantly aware of how thankful I am for every meal that's placed in front of me.

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