‘We came, we ate and we conquered!’ That’s how I feel after every food festival. Over the years the Karachi Eat Festival (KEF) has grown bigger, bolder and better, but the ones attending it still lack perspective. For a quick, fuss-free meal, grab a takeaway, because at a festival, you might not leave feeling full, but you will (and should) leave with a better understanding of the local gastronomic landscape.
Having expectations and being able to communicate them is critical for success, but when the feedback becomes crippling it’s important to take a step back and reevaluate the true meaning behind a food festival. And only when you come to terms with that can you begin to appreciate the culinary magic that is happening in your backyard.
Allow me to convey my thoughts here as a regular festivalgoer and address the concerns many of us have and the bitterness we’re harbouring from bad experiences in the past. To put it out there, I’ve been disappointed plenty, to the extent that I even skipped the 2017 Eat festival, but I picked up from where I left off because if I can’t make a commitment, how can I expect it from someone else. It was hard to shake free of all the negativity initially and overcome apprehensions – to the extent that I attended the festival without family in 2018 terrified at the thought of losing my toddler in the crowd – but I worked around that and this year I managed to attend with both my kids. If you plan, just like you expect the organisers to, you will end up with a relatively pleasant experience.
Parking is a perennial problem in Karachi. If you couldn’t find a spot, or had to walk more to reach the entrance point, it’s not because of mismanagement. It’s more to do with the turnout. When a festival caters to a common passion point, such as food, it is hard not to anticipate a massive turnout. No matter the location (they did shift from Frere Hall), it is never going to be easy and convenient unless paid parking or free shuttle service is introduced. Then too, you’ll still have to wait in queue to step on the bus because KEF’s footfall reaches a new high every year. Knowing that parking is one of the biggest issues, you can ease some of the stress by either car-pooling or booking a ride. It would be nice if we showed some support by playing our part as well.
Since I was attending with my two kids this year, we planned to visit on Sunday for lunch, hoping to take advantage of the daylight. It was difficult maneuvering a stroller on the grounds, but it wasn’t impossible. Carpets had been laid out for better accessibility. There was a paid premium lounge for visitors as well which made it convenient for senior citizens or people on wheelchairs to seat themselves while family members stood in queue for food.
The organisers have been listening and it’s important we give them credit for that. This year KEF even had a designated entertainment area for children, complete with ice cream and popcorn carts. They had a diaper changing station, which is more than I can say for an eye-watering 99% of the eateries in the city, and clean mobile toilets parked close to the children’s entertainment area. The cleaning staff was constantly taking rounds disposing garbage bags and picking up trash (which they shouldn’t have to) and staff in general seemed to be following instructions to ensure things went smoothly.
But planning can only take you so far. What can one do when dealing with intolerance? The brawl that broke out between the staff of two stalls (the owner from a stall knocked out a barbeque stand with matkas of chai from the neighbouring stall because he was getting frustrated from the smoke rising from the stove) just reflects more on us as a society, rather than a failure of the festival. It just means the vetting process for vendors will be more stringent now cause because good manners matters.
When it comes to behavioural expectations, it’s a two-way street. We too are expected to abstain from aggressive behavior towards vendors, pushing in line and showing a lack of basic courtesy. Having to deliver a ton of food prepped in small portions far from a working kitchen can be stressful so try to be supportive. Ultimately, a festival’s success is determined not just by the food on offer, but also by people attending it.
This year’s festival did not have the best food line-up. Some stalls even ran out of food and there were those that didn’t start service on time (there is no excuse for that), but it wasn’t a complete fail. The organisers know that they are on to a good thing and their struggle to try and not screw up is visible. For people with a shared passion and enthusiasm for local food, I’d expect more encouragement.