• November 12, 2014

We Are What We Eat: Chai, Chapatis and the Taste of Home

Packing up his underwater gear, Matthieu Paley says goodbye to the sea-dwelling Bajau. After a weekend stop-over in Turkey to see his wife and sons, Paley travels to a place that has a special hold on his heart, the mountains of northern Pakistan. Over the coming weeks, we will be taking you with us as Paley travels the globe on assignment for National Geographic in search of our ancestral ties to the food we eat.

Late February 2014

Five a.m. and it’s mayhem in the Islamabad airport. Melancholy and excitement fight for attention. I am going back to northern Pakistan, my second home. I have been there so many times over the last 15 years, I have stopped counting the trips. Everything about this region has woken me up to the world, shaped me into a different person, more than any other place I have been to. The mountains are gigantic and treacherous, the people warm and touching.

A woman tends her potato field in the fortified village of Altit. The village, in the Hunza region, is over 1,000 years old.

The plane takes flight and we are off to the north, to the mountains. I sweet talk my way into the cockpit, chatting about camera equipment with the pilots while we graze by Nanga Parbat, which stands at over 26,000 feet. Suddenly, I recognize it—the wide valley with the sand dunes, below the high peaks, the town of Skardu in the distance.

It seems like yesterday I first lived here. 1999. I was just out of photography school, involved in a trekking company and trying to take meaningful pictures while working for an NGO. I see friends from way back then in the bazaar and hug them. Drinking chai after chai, we reunite. It’s like riding a bike—impossible to forget.

Preparing a dinner of maltashtze giyalin (Hunza pancakes), to be served with mulberry syrup and a cup of rock-salted milk tea.

Eight hours in a jeep ride and we are in the Hunza valley. In the late 90’s, it was a hot destination for American and European trekkers. But September 11 pretty much eradicated tourism from this blessed land. Imagine high snowy peaks in the summer with lush green valleys below, endless fruit orchards, and a people whose hospitality is second nature. Yes, I mean blessed.

fter breakfast, a woman in the village of Altit checks on her baby.
After breakfast, a woman in the village of Altit checks on her baby.

I am in the village of Hussaini. It’s winter. The icy Hunza River snakes its way slowly to a gigantic amphitheater of rock and gravel. Shades of gray are everywhere. It’s the color we wanted for that part of the assignment: a balance to the aquamarine waters of Borneo, the lush green of the Bolivian jungle, the ice blue of Greenland’s frozen tundra, the crimson red of the Kyrgyz costumes. Tupopdan, the “sun-drenched mountain,” edges its teeth to the sky. It’s Wakhi country, and I speak the local language. I feel right at home. Women come down to the river to bring water, hiking the steep path back up to the village. Some are back from fetching wood across the river. No wood, no cooking…I should check this out.

A kitchen in a home in the village of Aliabad.
A kitchen in a home in the village of Aliabad.

When I ask, the two women laugh out loud. “You want to join us? It’s so windy today! Ok, let’s get going then!” I am on a wood gathering mission with women that must be my grandmother’s age—Zamrad Begum and Nasib Sultan. This is going to be a workout alright—and these two are fit as hell! For 15 minutes, we walk atop the wide, dry riverbed, alongside the skeleton of a suspended bridge usually used in summer, when the melting glaciers turn the river into a swollen beast.

Last year, a gigantic landslide blocked the river down below, forming a lake that swallowed the bridge and the roads. “The lake cut us off from the rest of the world really. No food trucks could come up to us. But we are mostly self-sufficient, so that was ok. The real problem was getting to schools and hospitals.”

In the winter pasture of Zor Abad, Zamrad Begum and Nasib Sultan gather wood for cooking and heating their homes. The pasture is about a two-hour walk from their village.
In the winter pasture of Zor Abad, Zamrad Begum and Nasib Sultan gather wood for cooking and heating their homes. The pasture is about a two-hour walk from their village.

We climb up to the other side reaching Zor Abad, a quiet orchard in its winter slumber. There are sea buckthorn bushes around, ready to be cut, but Zamrad explains the rotational system: “You can’t cut here, this needs to rest for a year. Let’s get higher. Come on my brother!”

A couple of chukar birds cackle away above us. Nasib spits in her hand and grabs her axe, swinging at the thorny brush while talking in Wakhi. “There it is, nice wood for my home! That’s some nice wood for my home!” Zamrad grabs the thorny branches with her bare hands and piles them up high, tying them with a rope. Nasib laughs, “Dear Zamrad, such a beautiful thing you are doing, a nice bundle, a real jewel, like a bead of your necklace!” Another 30 minutes of hard work, they run down the mountain, loaded with wood, meeting up with other women, daughters and granddaughters. All the way home they chat between bouts of laughter, making fun of the village men, singing songs about “Bulbul”, the famous nightingale. I puff along behind, eating their dust.

In the remote village of Shimshal, Baba Jan's family gather together to prepare dinner: chai and chapatis sprinkled with apricot oil.
In the remote village of Shimshal, Baba Jan’s family gather together to prepare dinner: chai and chapatis sprinkled with apricot oil.

By now, I am famished. My stomach tells me to follow this gang of women into the village. A man greets me and joins our crowd. He is in his early 40’s and just too cool for school, a local hipster it seems: blue jeans, moccasins, a down jacket, Ray Bans, and a row of blinding white teeth directly out of a Colgate commercial. “My name is Sher Aziz, I am the religious leader here. The women are asking if you are hungry,” he says. “Please be kind enough to join us. Let’s have chai and eat!”

Preparing chalpindok, chappattis drizzled with a salty sauce of kurut (dried yak milk curd) and butter
Preparing chalpindok, chapatis drizzled with a salty sauce of kurut (dried yak milk curd) and butter

That’s one thing I haven’t been worried about: getting invited into people’s homes. A dusty trail leads us through agricultural fields. Everything is at rest, waiting for spring. “Next week, we will start to put manure”, Sher Aziz goes on. We follow frozen irrigation channels. “Our ancestors! They did all this—leveled the fields, removed the stones, built these walls. And water … they channeled it all the way up from that glacier, no machines! It’s hard work but we live to be old and happy.”

We walk into Zamrad’s home, passing a sleepy donkey. People gather around the dildung, the central fireplace, and I am asked to sit by the loop raj, the honorific place near the fire, away from the door. Fading light falls gently on the women from an opening in the roof. With the rasp of a match striking and a couple of gentle blows, the first flames light up the house.

Rubina Ismail and Yahyah Naig pluck and cook ducks in the village of Shimshal.
Rubina Ismail and Yahyah Naig pluck and cook ducks in the village of Shimshal.

“See, fire is where it all starts, it’s the way to the stomach.” Zamrad sits on the floor, next to me. “In this season, we eat a lot of shhikerkutz hoi (potatoes mixed with fenugreek.) And no meal goes without chapati, our daily bread.”

“And where do all these vegetables come from?” I ask. Zamrad points to a side of the house. “Behind that wall, from our field, where else?” I’ve heard it said the enemy of food is miles. Here, proximity is the key to survival.

Next, a lively family dinner on the island of Crete.


Come along on Matthieu Paley’s global food journey from its origins in the mountains of Afghanistan, to the arctic tundra of Greenland, the steamy jungle of Bolivia, and the crystalline waters of the Sulu Sea.

The Evolution of Diet“, featured in the September issue, is part of National Geographic‘s special eight-month “Future of Food” series. Follow Paley on Twitter, Instagram, and his website.

There are 67 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Hamza Badshah
    December 24, 2015

    So interesting. My parents were brought up in the northern areas of Pakistan, and i’ve got to experience it lightly on holiday. It’s nice to see the area of my family origin, even though i’ve hardly seen it in person.

  2. Olusegun Odewusi
    April 4, 2015

    This is great, i love such area. Too good and reserve for respected and quite type

  3. Aman Hussain
    January 13, 2015

    Thank you Matthieu Paley and the National Geographic team. You guys have done a wonderful job- Thumbs Up!!! perfect article with beautiful photographs 🙂

    @Tacla: Women over here work BESIDES Men, like in the Fields, gathering wood and working in offices (Schools, hospitals and others). Its mostly equality, that prevails, when it comes to the rights & duties/responsibilities. I hope that helps 😉

    @Helga Ahmad: Indeed unfortunate, but there still is a hope for developing awareness among the people (especially the young entrepreneur minded ones). Also our Organization (NSDO Ghulkin) will be conducting an awareness program and a series of training sessions this summer, focusing on sea buckthorn in particular and other fruits in general. So, wish us a good luck 😉

    @amonhussain (I’m on Twitter)

  4. Louis Lin
    January 10, 2015

    I’d like to go on a trek like this. It’s always wonderful to know what people in different places are doing and how they live. Thank you for sharing your trip, enable me to enjoy knowing about their culture, customs and food. I wish I could see that in person some day.

  5. Ann Fahey
    January 8, 2015

    Such wonderful photographs! Each one a feast for the eyes. Very special!

  6. Helga Ahmad
    January 4, 2015

    Excellent article. Was delighted to read that rotational system in cutting shrub wood still exists. Wish though, that instead trees are planted, as Seabuckthorn has high nutritional, medicinal and cosmetic value. Unfortunately this message does not seem to have reached these people. Can anyone help?

  7. Tahir Mehmood
    January 4, 2015

    Nice, love to visit Hunza some day, upto Khunjrab pass…

  8. Rick Fitzpatrick
    January 4, 2015

    Wonderful article and beautiful pictures. Thank you so much for bringing these region of Pakistan to readers throughout the world. These people know the true meaning of life and purpose. It restores my faith in humanitys good will and respect for others.

  9. Jamal
    December 27, 2014

    Thans to the writer and people who are taking interest about this isolated region. Its hard to cover all aspects of life in a small article, a complete researched documentary can bring Core cultural and traditional facts which enabled the inhabitants of this area to live with joyful life by overcoming extreme hardships of life.

  10. axel
    December 17, 2014

    very nice story!!

  11. mayanglambam ojit kumar singh
    December 17, 2014

    “You can’t cut here, this needs to rest for a year. Let’s get higher. Come on my brother!” This are the in-heritage for us. Meaningful words, symbolic sign and such embedded comments are the one that sustain such village so sustainably. I come from kakching which is located in Manipur state of India in north east . we still irrigate our fields with traditional method. a tradition serving the modern world…..A good work and symbollic pictures.

  12. Shayna Hope
    December 16, 2014

    Nice pictures

  13. Shayna Hope
    December 16, 2014


  14. Flavia
    December 12, 2014

    your article it was an amazing experience for me. wonderful good morning.

  15. Sardar Aftab Khan
    December 9, 2014

    Thanks for sharing the life and livelihood of this beautiful part of my country with the world.

  16. Lars Bergen
    December 8, 2014

    Stunning! Can’t help but wonder; how many of us would survive this way of living for just a few hours. You want milk? Go milk the yak!

  17. Salvador Enrique Hurtado A.
    December 3, 2014

    Magníficas fotografías, lugares hermosos gente sensilla.


  18. Muhammad Hamza
    November 30, 2014

    Its really Magneficent pics… Northern areas in Pakistan are stunninG and much more beauTiful or adventureous than any other place in the world… Simply Woww!!

  19. Maggie Ciesinski
    November 29, 2014

    They seem very happy and like amazing people

  20. Andrea
    November 29, 2014

    I wonna live there, I didn’t even read the text, photos are enough describing to me.

  21. Nikhil mishra
    November 24, 2014

    Very beautifully portrayed the hard life of these people,shows the beauty and hardness of nature.I wish i could do the same type of work

  22. Laureene
    November 22, 2014

    For me, this is the one region that still holds a lot of intrigue, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.. One day i hope to return and see it all again. Thank you for sharing the wonderful works of your hands Mathew

  23. Glenn Masuno
    November 20, 2014

    This my first visit to Nat Geo and came across your article as I was looking at pictures. I was quickly intrigued with your story. I definitely will be looking forward to more articles from you.

  24. Jessie
    November 20, 2014

    I had the wonderful privilege of being in gilgit for three months back in 2007. We lived with a family and got to know then, such great people. The mountains are so beautiful, I hope to one day go back.

  25. Didar Ali
    November 19, 2014

    Thank you Matthieu Paley, you have written very nice article on my village, the pictures and your words truly explained the real life of the village women, indeed they are the breed earners, taking care of their families and good mothers, we are proud of them.

  26. syed ali hamid
    November 19, 2014

    lovely pics and write up………. i first went to Hunza in 1955 with my parents. Flew to Gilgit in a DC3 Dakota and by pony to Aliabad because there was no road then. I was only 5 so my father had taken along a ring saddle for me and I woke and slept on horseback through the journey…stayed 2 months with the then Mir and Rani of Hunza….. such a graceful couple and with large hearts………woke up every morning to the magestic view of Rakaposhi 7,788 m. it had not been conquered yet. i remember the staple diet of mulberries and the apricots

  27. Niko
    November 18, 2014

    great job 🙂

  28. M Saeed Khan
    November 16, 2014

    Couldn’t read a better description of the land and people of Baltistan. Just love it.

  29. sabz aly
    November 16, 2014

    i will just say WOW! you have explained it very well.

  30. vishnu
    November 16, 2014

    Its awesome….peace every were….! wish i can be ther with my cam.

  31. Mateen Khalid
    November 15, 2014

    If you need my assistance to northern areas, feel free and just ask ..

  32. Mateen Khalid
    November 15, 2014

    Paradise Pakistan, simply
    I always enjoy visiting and traveling to these mountains and exploring nature, every summer. and nice work ….

  33. umar
    November 15, 2014

    wow amazing proud to be a Pakistani and love these places.

  34. Darlene
    November 15, 2014

    Rich in color and words

  35. M Ali
    November 15, 2014

    A wonderful piece on a Xanadu.

  36. Fatima Mir
    November 15, 2014

    Peace lovers of Pakistan….Beautifull images nd mouth watering explanation ov my HUNZA Cuisines luv to be traditional..but alas! the modern world and capitalism has potrayed traditional nd old civilizations as backward and trying to mold those peacefull societies into so called modern societies …… i wish my valley nd we inhabbitants may always stick to our beautifull traditions,family values and culture ….:)

  37. Naxeem
    November 15, 2014

    Amazing Matthieu Paley: I have been living in this village through out my life and couldn’t realize the essence of this piece of paradise up till now… Living in high Himalayas of course we feel very close to nature and God but because of lack of resources we (youth) are obliged to move to the urban areas for studies or job hunt and we gradually root ourselves at the sea level. You have taught a lesson in this piece of article. Merci-thank you- shukurya-ju na- 🙂

  38. Hussein El-Edroos
    November 14, 2014

    Been to Gilgit and Skardu by road. Hunza is one place on my list of places to visit.

  39. Zeba Rasmussen
    November 14, 2014

    Fantastic pictures and article from a place I love as well. Thank you!

  40. John Stanmeyer
    November 14, 2014

    Another well written, beautifully illustrated story by NG colleague, Matthieu Paley. And indeed correct about Pakistan’s epic landscape, hospitality and kindness.

  41. Ayesha
    November 14, 2014

    Makes me soo nostalgic! Miss the doodh-patti from Pakistan – no where else compares.

    November 14, 2014

    I LIKE THE PICTURES,em found of namkeen tea….

  43. reshma
    November 14, 2014

    Brings back a lot of my childhood memories. Being brought in that part of the world in the 80s nd 90s, we loved having foreign tourists around, we would fight on getting them to our houses, having pictures with them and trying to talk to them in English. Alas 9/11 the destruction 9/11 brought cannot be explained in words, it is huge. Today’s kids are missing on those memories that we enjoyed with tourists. Now the local tourists of pakistan come frequently but with totally oppositemindset than the foreign tourists….spreading trash and imposing their ideologies are two main concerns. I wish the time cud come back when good people come, enjoy and respect us the way we respect them.

  44. Sumayya Usmani
    November 14, 2014

    Wonderful article, highlighting the generosity and simplicity of the people of my country – I am writing a Pakistani cookbook in the UK (born and raised in Karachi) – it is this side of Pakistan I wish more people would write about and you have captured it in both words and visuals.

  45. Sherzaman Gulzaman
    November 14, 2014

    I feel glad,when someone is exploring one of the beautiful place Hunza,Gilgit region,which is known as “Mini Switzerland” of Pakistan, because of it’s natural beauty.The geographical importance of this region has impressed the entire world in so many ways.I belongs to Hunza,Region,I would recommend everyone to visit this place once in your life time,you will see the real wonder for sure..!!

  46. Tacla
    November 14, 2014

    Wonderfully – described adventure! We learned about what women do. What do men do?

  47. Mansoor Ahmed
    November 14, 2014

    Believe me… The people living thr r true simple and generous… Not a single rich family can compete with there generousity and humbleness …

  48. Muhammad Ali
    November 14, 2014

    Missing mom’s food in Germany: Chai, Chapatis and the Taste of Home

  49. Akbar Hussain Mughal
    November 14, 2014

    Amazing reading.. Thanks National Geographic

  50. NM
    November 14, 2014

    Beautiful. I love the writer’s respect for and knowledge of the people of this region.

  51. Masood
    November 14, 2014

    Also, people in America and elsewhere need to know that these people happen to be Muslim ….they are just normal, peace loving people living their days with their families just like everyone else! There’s nothing to be afraid of.

  52. Abdullah
    November 14, 2014

    I am from this beautiful place (hunza)
    You guys are well come and it will be my pleasure while hosting…

  53. Dr munawar shakoor
    November 13, 2014

    waoo..its realy wonderful..nostalgic..
    i really miss the trditional dishes…nice collection

  54. Billy Bobadilla
    November 13, 2014

    Thanks for the enlightenment, its a unique feeling we get when we learn about different cultures & there daily living and there humbleness that’s out of this world. Thank you

  55. amina bibi
    November 13, 2014

    my khala(aunt) my mom’s sister Nasib Sultan with Axe cutting wood(see why no one can mess with our women 🙂 the hard working women of our area, feeling so proud of them, feeling proud to be from Hunza pakistan

  56. saad
    November 13, 2014

    i live in the federal coital of Pakistan. like 500 kms away from these picture places. if you want to see more of that life hit me at fb. id: saad565

  57. Jenny chisholm
    November 13, 2014

    Ive gotta watch your postings now. Your meaningful words & brillant photos got me wanting to go experience these cultures again.
    We have so much to learn from this way of being. Thanku for sharing.

  58. Sarah Ilich
    November 13, 2014

    my now husband & I were lucky enough to spend two months travelling NP in 2004. Currently we reside in Botswana, Africa (kiwi & Australian) and have spent all of our 12 years together, travelling the world. This is still our favourite place in the planet along with its people. We cannot wait until we can take our 6 year old daughter, india back with us to share in the experience. It’s is truely a magical place, along with its rice culture & humble people. Well done with your photographic journal.

  59. Farah Mahbub
    November 13, 2014

    the images the words “love it”

  60. azmat ali
    November 13, 2014

    Interesting reading.

  61. A
    November 13, 2014

    mom’s foood

  62. rajma
    November 13, 2014

    A vivid portrayal of a lifestyle that has not changed in this remote area even in this ‘flat world’. Very enriching.

  63. Abby Dagley
    November 12, 2014

    Truly this world is magical and I am so touched looking at those pictures how they are cooking, they are happy and contented with their family, especially those two mother’s happy with their child. Happy and contented with what they have, the basic needs of surviving and living day to day life. Thank you for sharing those photographs.

  64. Midge Barfoot
    November 12, 2014

    I love your pictures & the way you write. Looking forward to your next adventure.

  65. Jean Lehmann
    November 12, 2014

    I was blessed in 1980, to experience the world you have described and depicted here. I just could not write the way you write. You brought so many wonderful memories back to me. This part of the world is magical and the people are so gracious and wonderful!

  66. Aadil Mansoor
    November 12, 2014

    Wonderful. nostalgic and reminds of the year I spent there. Natgeo should cover more of this area to help revive tourism.

  67. Maria Hunter
    November 12, 2014

    love this! please send me more.

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