As soon as the pink-clad Ayesha Mumtaz steps out of her car, word of her arrival spreads along the street like a forest fire. Storekeepers begin shooing away customers, hauling down the shutters, and heading into the shadows in the hope that Mumtaz’s scrutinizing eye will not fall on them.
These traders would sooner lose business than risk a visit from a woman whose campaign to clean up the kitchens and food factories of Pakistan has made her a national celebrity, nicknamed “The Fearless One.”
Today, Mumtaz has come to a crowded alley in Lahore, a city with a long history of producing splendid South Asian cuisine, but with a less distinguished record of worrying about how food reaches the plate.
She is here to fire a fresh volley in her self-declared “war” against unhygienic food, by raiding a backstreet business that makes cakes, sweets and desserts for wholesale. Her target is a crumbling concrete house where the cooking takes place in the yard.
Mumtaz marches through the iron gate and begins rummaging around the big grubby pots and fly-blown cans of gooey liquid that seem to be lying around haphazardly. The place is strewn with dirty containers, grimy rags and rusty tin cans.
“You see the cleanliness of the utensils?” Mumtaz asks scathingly, as she holds up a giant spoon, crusted with filth. She reaches under a bench and hauls out a container littered with moldy scraps of cake.
It is “really horrible” that consumers are unaware the cakes and sweets that they’re buying over the counter are produced amid such squalor, says Mumtaz. She glares at the owner, who watches on in sullen silence.
Six months ago Mumtaz, 38, took over as operations director of the Punjab Food Authority, a government agency tasked with ensuring that the food served to Pakistan’s most populous province is hygienic and unadulterated.
Punjab has a population that is more than double that of California. Lahore, the provincial capital, has a vast array of food outlets, as you’d expect in a city whose relish for food is legendary.
“If I were to point my finger at the No. 1 favorite social activity of Lahories, it is to go out and eat,” says Lahore-born academic and musician Taimur Rahman. “It is more important than music. It’s more important than politics. For Lahories, I think they live for food.”
You only need take an evening stroll along Anarkali Food Street, one of Lahore’s favorite cheap eating spots, to see the city’s hearty appetite. The sidewalk is lined with restaurants. These are full of people, lured by the smell of frying fish and freshly baked naan bread.
Every now and then, there’s a rapid-fire burst of metallic drumming — as a chef chops up a mixture of goat’s kidney, brains, liver and testicle on a big flat steel pan. He’s making a local favorite named Taka Tak, after the chopping sound.
Taking on Punjab’s food industry is a monumental task. Mumtaz seems undeterred. She views access to safe food as “a basic human right” — her mission is to secure this for the public, she says.
So far, she and her inspectors have raided more than 13,000 businesses, handing out fines, sending samples for lab tests, and occasionally closing outlets down until they can prove they comply with legal standards. Civil servants tend to be regarded with contempt by Pakistanis, who often accuse them of corruption and idleness.
Mumtaz is winning many fans because she is considered an exception. More than 350,000 people have signaled their approval by clicking the “like” button on the Punjab Food Authority’s Facebook page. Mumtaz is pleased by this recognition: “It is like thousands of bubbles bursting inside when you feel people really respect you,” she says.
Part of her popularity is drawn from her willingness to take on some of Lahore’s big players. In Pakistan, government officials have a reputation of hounding the poor while giving a free pass to the powerful. Mumtaz has raided some of Lahore’s most prestigious establishments. In one five-star hotel, she found a rat in a fridge, alongside the chilled fruit and meat.
Mumtaz has many stories like that. Her organization’s raids have unearthed lizard droppings on cakes, cosmetics used as food coloring, and dirty underwear draped over dishes. If she’d collected every cockroach she’d found, she’d have an army, she remarks with a sudden, startling grin.
“Hygiene issues have been running rampant in most of the eateries,” says Mumtaz. “People are simply unaware of what hygiene is.” Yet Mumtaz says many food operators are willing to learn and change their ways, once the rules are explained to them.
This does not include what she calls a “mafia,” a ruthless criminal minority who are interested only in profit and resist any attempt to clean up their act. “We have to come down hard on them,” she says. “We cannot allow them to get away with their perverse activities and play havoc with the lives of the people.”
Some are pushing back. The Lahore Restaurant Association recently won a judge’s order banning Mumtaz’s food authority from naming and shaming eateries on Facebook before they’ve been found guilty in court of any violations.
Ahmad Shafiq, the association’s general secretary, accuses Mumtaz of overstating the scale of the problem. He says his members — who are from the city’s top restaurants — are not against her campaign but need clear guidelines. “I take my children to the same restaurants where the food authority has concerns,” he says. “So we need to have safe food for our children. It is not that we are against any authority or any department. We appreciate their assistance.”
He thinks Mumtaz has too much power. “It is like giving someone complete charge — that you are the regulator, you are judge, and you are the police.
One person has all the authority. It shouldn’t happen.”
Back at the sweets factory in the yard, Mumtaz is winding up her raid. She has decided the premises must be sealed until the business abides by the law. A friend of the owner tries to intervene, appealing for leniency. “You have no right to interfere!” retorts Mumtaz.
Mumtaz is proud of her reputation for fearlessness. “Of course I am fearless,” she says. “I think that one has to do one’s duty in a very valiant manner. I say that I won’t run away: I’m here.”
She steps into the street, where a crowd has gathered to catch a glimpse of her. Some people are taking pictures with their cellphones.
“This is a blessing in disguise, that such a woman is working so amazingly,” says Emmad Shaikh, a 23-year-old student. He watches, starstruck, as Mumtaz and the policeman who escorts her on these raids climb into their small white car and head off to inspect another food factory, elsewhere.
“People are actually happy that there is a hope that they’ll get good-quality food in the near future,” says Shaikh. It is way too early for such optimism, but Ayesha Mumtaz is certainly showing quite a fight.
Whatever the outcome, Lahore is sure to remain a city of foodies, full of the smell of fresh “naan” and the sound of Taka Tak.