The bright pink falooda I’m devouring has transported me to Baloch Ice Cream in Karachi, Pakistan. In reality, I’m parked outside Chachi’s Chai, one of my favourite desi spots in Toronto. Under normal circumstances, I’d be sitting inside the café, but enjoying the chilled dessert in a car is actually more authentic. This is how it’s often eaten back home.
Each slurp is a cooling and sweet mouthful of rose-flavoured almond milk, basil seeds, bright green pistachios and vermicelli. Popular in many parts of the Indian subcontinent, falooda has Persian roots, and the rendition I’m used to was reimagined by the Mughal Empire. I learned this earlier when I took a little dive into the history of the dish in anticipation of my Pakistani street-food crawl – one of my recent themed local travel adventures.
For the past few months, I’ve noticed people on Instagram doing food crawls on wheels. They spend the week waiting for menus to appear online, drool over posts teasing the foods on offer, and scramble to order from restaurants and pop-ups before dishes sell out. Then on the weekend, they pick up the food and munch on it in their cars. In Canada, eating out like this might be a sign of the times, but it’s a tradition in Karachi and something I grew up doing.
Pull up to most food spots in that city, and you’ll find an efficient system for dining al auto. Servers bring menus, take orders and then deliver meals on colourful trays to rolled-down windows. It’s partly because of the heat and humidity (people want to stay in their air-conditioned cars), partly because many of the best spots operate as carts, stalls or holes in the wall, and partly for social reasons. Regardless, it’s a huge part of the city’s local food culture.
In need of some adventure, I decided to put a spin on this tradition and use it as a vehicle for travel – both mentally and physically – during the pandemic. Each week, I theme an immersive food crawl around an international destination, then drive across the Greater Toronto Area to enjoy dishes from several restaurants, all to be savoured in the comfort of my car. If you’re interested in trying this out, here’s how I go about it.
Start by planning your adventure as you would a regular vacation. Pick a region, country or city you want to visit. So far, I’ve taken my taste buds back to the mouthwatering clamour of Karachi – with the falooda, Karachi Kababeez’s paratha rolls, and Little Sister Baking’s chicken tikka buns – and visited the island of Sicily courtesy of Sweet Cultura, Stock T.C. and Futura Granita + Gelato. Up next I’ll be exploring countries along the Levant coastline thanks to spots such as Zezafoun Syrian Cuisine, Nablus Creamery and Kunafa’s.
Next, spend a few days learning about the destination. This is my favourite part. Research what the locals eat and how they enjoy their food. I didn’t know that in Sicily almond granita is often eaten at breakfast. I also discovered that elements of Sicilian cuisine have Arab roots, which took me on a different journey than expected. Along with busiate alla trapanese and arancini, I looked for piacentinu ennese, a sheep’s milk cheese infused with saffron and peppercorns.
Get into the nitty-gritty of how each dish is made from one place to the next, local ingredients, traditions and history – what you might learn if actually travelling. Immerse yourself in the destination as much as possible. I spend the week digging through old National Geographic Traveler issues, watching movies and food documentaries and listening to playlists on Spotify from the country in question. It all helps you appreciate the delicious food coming your way that much more.
Finally, it’s time to find your restaurants, and this is where the research comes in handy. Some cuisines will present more options than others. To narrow things down, I look for restaurants whose owners are bringing their stories life with food.
Pick a few different places, maybe one or two spots for appetizers, a couple for main courses and somewhere for dessert. I also visit stores or pantries specializing in goods from the destination for edible souvenirs. If possible, plan the adventure with a loved one and share food along the way – that way, you discover more. Don’t forget to bring reusable cutlery and napkins.
While a car may not conjure images of far-off corners of the world, I’ve enjoyed the novelty of channelling this tradition from back home. To add a little ambience, I diffuse essential oils in my car and play music from wherever my taste buds are lucky enough to be visiting. As the weather gets warmer, it’s also possible to do this crawl as a picnic. It’s really all about your imagination and how you make this an experience in itself.