Why you should care

Building bonds through food is nothing new, but it takes on a radical meaning when you’re just a kilometer from one of the world’s most heavily guarded borders.

As far as culinary destinations go, the heavily guarded India-Pakistan border is no Paris. If Attari-Wagah is even on your travel bucket list, it likely falls somewhere between a trip to Nebraska’s Carhenge and a Segway tour of Mogadishu. But it’s actually a popular tourist area, where the Wagah border ceremony takes place daily — and where a new restaurant named Sarhad Food Kitchen is trying to change the world.

The goal of Sarhad’s CEO, Aman Jaspal, isn’t just to make good biryani, but to bring Punjabis on both sides of the border together for what they care about most: food. “Amritsar and Lahore share a great culinary tradition. Food is the primary love of all Punjabis,” Jaspal told the Indian Express. “If hunger fuels the fire of anger, food is the energy that propels peace.”

If hunger fuels the fire of anger, food is the energy that propels peace.

The 1947 partition of India never quite registered in the gullet of the average Punjabi. It is this cultural and culinary heritage of pre-partition Punjab that the Sarhad Food and Culture Park — including the Museum of Peace, which awaits approval by the Ministry of Culture — was built to celebrate.

Architecturally inspired by the old buildings of Lahore and Amritsar, the Sarhad complex lies midway between Amritsar and Lahore, just over a kilometer from the border on the Indian side. The popular food kitchen is best accessed by car or taxi, preferably one willing to drive on the wrong side of a multilane road for several hundred meters to avoid waiting miles until the next break in the median.

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Upon arrival, Sarhad’s striking exposed brick buildings, designed in the classic, pre-partition style, grab your attention, but only briefly before your eyes alight on the two brightly colored trucks parked out front. Haider Ali, a famous Pakistani truck artist who has painted trucks across the world, including for the Smithsonian, has decorated Sarhad’s two trucks, along with the interior of the restaurant, with colorful motifs of Punjab and peace. “Almost every tourist coming to Sarhad gets a picture taken with the trucks,” says Jaspal.

It’s not the atmosphere but the food that will make you, like the hundreds of regular Punjabi patrons, return to Sarhad. Since opening in August 2012, up to 800 patrons a day have been pouring in to sample the wide range of succulent Lahori and Amritsari cuisine coming out of the kitchen, from Indian specialties like spicy paneer dishes and dal makhani to Pakistani delights like gurde kapoore and bakarkhani roti. In true Punjabi style, what might look like a simple curry is in fact a skillfully layered banquet of perfectly infused spices and flavors.

So far Sarhad has been making money and also succeeding — one Lahori naan at a time — in its broader mission. It’s amassed almost 24,000 Facebook fans (Chez Panisse has just 13,000) and is helping to improve connections between young Indians and Pakistanis in the area by launching a “pen pal” type of campaign between students from Amritsar and Lahore.

Sarhad’s unique ethos and business model have even attracted attention from students at Harvard Business School, who are helping to enhance its business and social impact through an improved digital marketing strategy. Sarhad has also been adopted as a project by Aman Ki Asha, a nationwide India-Pakistan peace initiative led by the Times of India newspaper group and Jung group of newspapers in Pakistan.

Jaspal is overjoyed at Sarhad’s early success, but knows there’s a long road ahead. “When I was a young 15-year-old, my only exposure to what America was, was the fast food,” he says. “A restaurant is often your first exposure to a culture. What we are trying at Sarhad is very simple: We want people to experience Pakistani food, music and art, and in the course of their stay realize how similar we are as a society — and question the hatred that has been propagated. We want to show a side of Pakistan that’s different from what is drilled into our heads through media.”

And that means dinner. Jaspal may have discovered the best way to reach a divided region’s heart: through its stomach.

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