Masters of spices: Cheek-by-jowl chaat houses dish out the barbs in battle for customers

Bohri Bazaar’s two most famous chaat shops battle it out for customers because of proximity.

Saba Imtiaz January 26, 2011

KARACHI: Clattering dishes, whirring blenders and shoptalk are eclipsed only by the competitive shouting of the salesmen at Bohri Bazaar’s two most famous chaat shops who battle it out for the highest number of customers because of proximity.

For years, people in Karachi have flocked to Bohri Bazaar for its famed Nimco store, cotton saris and jewellery - and the most divine chaat to be found in the city. The most iconic stalls are Bombay Chaat House and Chopati Chaat House, which have been here for at least 40 years. Despite being old hands, the neighbouring stalls still wage a battle for customers, through a combination of verbal advertising and catchy phrases.

If Bombay Chaat House’s salesman yells out to the aunties, ‘bajis’ and ‘khalas’, asking them to come to their “40-year-old chaat house”, Chopati’s man matches him decibel for decibel with “Baji, where are you going? Come here!”

Dekhein jagah hi jagah hai [Look, there’s so much room here],” cries the Chopati seller to a potential customer.

Kyun, dukaan khaali hai? [Why, is your shop empty?]” responds Bombay’s salesman, eliciting a string of abuse from Chopati.

Bombay Chaat House is the older of the two establishments and its 65-year-old owner Shafi Ahmed puts on a patronising air when asked about his rival. “Of course, when you have one or two competing places this is bound to happen. You will compete for customers. Every store in the market, whether it sells fabric or shoes, has its sellers calling out to people to come inside their shop. So we have to do this to be heard.”

Future prospects, changing trends

A lively past, however, does not necessarily mean a bright future and the prospects of these eateries looks a little bleak.

Ahmed laments the rising cost of living. “There is no value in this work and no respect. My sons are working here but if they get good jobs I want them to go. I have five daughters, two of them are married. But no one wants to marry their sons to someone whose father sells chaat for a living so we get no proposals.”

Ahmed has worked at Bombay Chaat House for 40 years, and says he cannot recall when it opened - his father also had the same store. “It has become too expensive to run this place … we barely make any money. Some customers ask about the prices at the door and run away. If people used to buy two plates of chaat before, they now buy one.” The menus of Chopati and Bombay have also adapted to reflect new trends. They both offer burgers in the guise of bun kebabs. Ahmed says it has become a “fashion” to eat them. “It is takeaway food,” he sniffs.

“People buy them and eat them in their cars or walking down the street.” He would much rather have his customers leisurely dine in and order another round after their appetite is whetted.

Bombay Chaat House sells up to 250 plates of chaat a day and the ingredients cost Rs3,000 to Rs4,000 per day.

Aziz Moosajee, who runs Chopati, says, “When Bohri Bazaar hasn’t changed, why would the customers?” While he is not as pessimistic as Ahmed, he too does not plan on seeing his children carry on the business. Taken aback at my question, he says, “My children are being educated. They won’t work here.”

Moosajee concurs with Ahmed that the number of shoppers in the market has gone down. “There was a time when at 4 pm you couldn’t even step foot into this market [because it was so crowded]. Now, it is often deserted by then.”

As he dishes out chaat to his customers, he complains about rising prices. “A plate of chaat would cost Rs17, now it is Rs40. Channas [chickpeas] would be Rs26 per kilograms and now they cost Rs126!”

Chopati, which also offers fresh fruit juice, says it sells up to 300 plates of chaat a day, which goes up to a thousand on a weekend.

We watch the salesmen jostling to entice customers.

Were these two stalls always this competitive?

“Yes,” says Moosajee. “We’ve been in business for so long, we have to bring people in.” As the shouting increases in volume, I ask, “So has this ever ended in a physical fight?”

“Never,” Moosajee exclaims. “We talk all the time!”

Published in The Express Tribune, January 26th, 2011.


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