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Road Food, Grand Trunk-Style, In India, Pakistan

A street vendor fries <em>jalebi,</em> a treat made of batter and crystallized sugar that is popular in Pakistan, Afghanistan and India.
John Poole
/
NPR
A street vendor fries jalebi, a treat made of batter and crystallized sugar that is popular in Pakistan, Afghanistan and India.

We are standing at a crowded food stall. Giant woks are bubbling away on open stoves street-side, bringing oil to a boil in preparation for some deep-frying.

The foods arrayed in front of me are completely and utterly familiar to me. Namak pare, deep-fried strips of dough, a salty snack that is great with tea. There is the fierce bright orange of a renowned sweet -- jalebi -- the sweetness will hurt your teeth as much as the otherworldly color might hurt your eyes.

The next wok is preparing a childhood favorite of mine -- pakoras -- sliced vegetables battered and deep-fried. These are just the snack foods. In a row just behind, huge aluminum pots are cooking up the main course -- dal (lentils), chicken masala and a simmering vat of rice pulao.

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I could be by any street food stall in India. In fact, I am near the farthest reaches of northwestern Pakistan, closer to Afghanistan than I am to India.

I am also on the Grand Trunk Road. We have visited two countries along the road, India and Pakistan -- countries that are often described as tense rivals along a heavily fortified border, a flashpoint in international affairs.

But when it comes to food many of the differences seem to melt away. This road has facilitated commerce and the spread of multiple faiths across the subcontinent. Tastes and textures have also traveled and merged.

At the table, at least, you notice the similarities between the two countries, not the differences.

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I am the child of Indians who lived through the bitterly violent creation of modern India and Pakistan in 1947. My parents were children when they were wrenched from their home in what is now Pakistan and joined the mass migration of Hindus east to a newly independent India. Their home state, Punjab, was divided between the two new nations.

Our journey along the Grand Trunk Road has taken us through Punjab in Pakistan. Here, I have encountered a place that is new and different, but at the same time not different at all.

The clothes and even the language are similar (our driver is pleasantly surprised that he and I practically speak the same language).

But for me, it is the food that demonstrates the extraordinary legacy of this centuries-old route. The physical barrier along this route is a modern creation of mapmakers and politicians.

But luckily for all of us, they forgot about the kitchen.

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