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  • Writer's pictureSanah Alban

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa: The History, Culture and Food of the Region

Updated: Nov 12, 2021

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa - The land of the Pashtuns, Pakistan's smallest province by land area but hosting unbelievably beautiful landscapes, drawing adventurers and explorers from all over .

This is a weekly series in which I share some information about each of the regions in Pakistan and share a specialty recipe from the area.

This week, we'll be concluding this series with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Saif-Ul-Malook, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Photo by Isaac Kenneth Wajid on Unsplash.


The province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, often abbreviated to KP or KPK, is located in the northwest of Pakistan. It borders Afghanistan, the Islamabad Capital Territory, the provinces of Punjab and Balochistan, and the Pakistani-administered territories of Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir.

KP is is the smallest province by land area and third largest by population (17,9% of the national population).

The Provincial Capital is Peshawar. Other major cities in KP are Mardan, Kohat and Abbottabad.

Map showing location of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan.


Khyber is the major pass between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and 'Pakhtun' refers to the major ethnic group of the region, so the name means 'The Khyber side of the land of the Pashtuns'.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was formerly known as the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). This name was given by the British when the area was established as a province, naming the province after its literal geographic location in British India (very boring, I know!).

Only in 2010 was the province renamed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with the consensus that other ethnicities in Pakistan had their province named after them i.e. Punjabi. Sindhi and Balochi people. Note there was resistance to the name as other minor ethnicities, like Hindkowans, live in the province, hence 'Khyber' was included in the name to not single out Pashtuns.

Bab-e-Khyber (Khyber Gate), a monument at the entrance of the Khyber Pass in KP

The province is colloquially known by other names like:

  • Sarhad, deriving from province's Urdu name, meaning frontier

  • Gandhara, the ancient name for this area

  • Lahinda Punjab/Western Punjab (the province was part of Punjab during British Rule)

  • Afghania

  • Pakhtunistan/Pashtunistan/ Pathanistan

  • Abasin

  • Khyber

Or a combination of these and other names.


During the time of the Indus Valley Civilization (3300 - 1300 BC), the Khyber Pass provided a major trade route to merchants.

This region was part of the Gandharan Civilization (6th to 1st centuries BC), which is mentioned in the Mahabharata, the Hindu epic poem. The ancient region of Gandhara comprises the modern day Kabul, Peshawara Swat and Taxila areas (northwest Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan). The region was known to be a great center of learning, being rich in literature and home to ancient universities.

Due to its location, a gateway to the subcontinent, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region has seen many invasions by those who sought the riches of India, starting with the Indo-Aryans in 1500 BC. The Persians conquered Gandhara in 6th century BC followed by the Alexander the Great in 327 BC. Although the reign of the Greeks and Macedonians was short, Greek culture influenced this region for a thousand years. After the Macedonians, Gandhara was part of the Mauryan empire. Ashoka, the grandson of Chandragupta (founder of Mauryan dynasty), made Buddhism the dominant religion of the region. After Ashoka's death, the Greeks held some power in the area but they were defeated by the Kushan clan of the Yuek Chi who were nomads from Central Asia.

Shingerdar stupa in Ghalegay from the Gandharan Period

Hindu Shahis were placed into power (843 AD) and with their rule, trade flourished with gems, textiles, perfumes and other goods exported west. The Shahis built Hindu temples in the region, the ruins of which can be found today in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. There were struggles between the Hindu Shahis and Ghaznavids over the years but the Ghaznavids succeeded in 1001. This marked the beginning of the Islamic rule with many people converting to Islam and Hindu temples and Buddhist monasteries being looted and destroyed.

Following the collapse of the Ghaznavid rule the Delhi Sultanate Period emerged. Several Muslim dynasties ruled during this time: the Mamluk dynasty (1206–90), the Khalji dynasty (1290–1320), the Tughlaq dynasty (1320–1413), the Sayyid dynasty (1414–51), and the Lodi dynasty (1451–1526).

In 1505, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa became part of the Mughal Empire. They were briefly challenged by Pashtun Emperor, Sher Shah Suri, who began the construction of the famous Grand Trunk Road, which links modern day Kabul in Afghanistan with Chittagong in Bangladesh. The Yusufzai and Afridi (Pashtun) tribes also revolted against the Mughals, In 1738, Peshawar was captured as part of the Persian invasion of the Mughal Empire under Nadir Shah. The area subsequently fell under the Afghan Durarani Empire, followed by the Sikh Empire under Ranjit Singh in 1818.

Mohabbat Khan Mosque in Peshawar, a Mughal era mosque

In 1849, the British took control after Second Anglo-Sikh War. Parts of the region were merged into the province of Punjab during the British rule. Local Pashtun tribes generally remained neutral or in support of the British mainly because they detested the Sikhs in contrast to other part of British India which rose up in revolt.

The region was still undefined in the late 19th century and claimed by the Kingdom of Afghanistan. In 1893, the British established a border with Afghanistan known as the Durand Line. The British separated the northwest portions of Punjab to form the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) in 1901. During the time of the independence and partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, the British held a referendum, whether the province join India or Pakistan. Pashtun Nationalists were in favor of an independent state of Pashtunistan but the British refused this third option. Out of the two the majority voted in favor of Pakistan.

Bacha Khan with Mahatma Ghandi. He was a Pashtun independence activist against British colonial rule in India.

The princely states of Swat, Dir, Chitral and Amb were allowed to maintain certain autonomy after independence but were eventually merged into the province in 1969. During the 1960s and '70s, the region was part of the Hippie trail overland from Europe to India. As a result of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, millions of Afghans migrated to Pakistan mostly choosing to reside in NWFP.

Following the attacks of 11 September 2001, the region has been a site of major conflict, militancy and terrorism. Armed conflict began in 2004 and there have been 50,000 Pakistani deaths since the war on terror with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa being the site of major conflict.

In 2010, the province was renamed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa succeeding the Northwest Frontier Province. More recently in 2018, the Federally Administered Tribal areas (FATA), a semi-autonomous tribal region, has been merged with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Topography & Climate

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has mountain ranges (some of the tallest mountains outside the Himalayas), submontane areas and plains surrounded by hills. The mountains generally run from north to south, dividing the province from east to west.

KP is divided into two geographic zones, the northern and southern zones:

  • The northern zone ranges from the Hindu Kush to the borders of the Peshawar basin. The climate of the northern zone is snowy and cold with heavy rainfall in winters. It has pleasant summers with moderate rainfall excluding the Capital Peshawar which is hot in summer.

  • The southern zone scopes from Peshawar to the Derajat Basin. It has hot summers with relatively cold winters with minimal rainfall.

The climate varies with elevation. The mountainous areas have cold winters and cool summers whereas the temperature rises as you go south.

Left to right: Swat in Northern KP and Sheikh Badin in Southern KP


Khyber Pakhtunkhwa accounts for around 10% of Pakistan's GDP, 20% of the country's mining output, dominates in forestry with around 60% on average of the national output and accounts for 78% of the marble production in Pakistan.

Agriculture is an important part of the economy, the main cash crops being wheat, maize, tobacco, rice, sugar beets and fruit, Manufacturing and tourism are also important to the economy of the province.


The most widely spoken language is Pashto, native to 80% of the population. Urdu being the national language of the country serves as common language between ethnic groups. Hindko, Seraiki, Khowar and Kohistani are also spoken. There are some languages like Badeshi spoken only in this province that are almost extinct.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's dominance in forestry


The largest ethnic group in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are the Pashtuns who have historically been living in the areas for centuries. Around 1.5 millions Afghan refugees live in the province, the majority of whom are Pashtuns followed by Tajiks, Hazaras, Gujjar and other smaller groups.

Pashtun culture is primarily based on Islam and Pashtunwali, which is a tribal code of conduct, This has four high value components called nang (honor), badal (revenge), melmastiya (hospitality) and nanawata (rights to refuge).

Pashtun men usually wear a Patoog-Korteh (known as salwar kameez in urdu) with a pakol which is a Pashtun hat. Women wear traditional long dresses with a light piece of cloth to cover their hair. They also wear beautiful hand made jewellery.

There are many traditional dances, like the Attan, Khattak, Mahsud and Waziri dance. Pashtuns are known for their literature and poetry, there are many different forms of poetry, each form having its unique theme, rhythm, line length etc. Pashto folk music is popular in the province. The main instruments are rubab, mangey and harmonium. Here are some examples of Pashtun music!

Left to right: Pashtun man wearing a Pakol hat, Kalashi dance in Chitral, Rubab stringed musical instrument.


Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is known for its natural beauty and is a hotspot for adventurers and explorers. The rugged mountains and lush greenery provide paradise-like views and the rich history of the province can be experienced at various archaeological and historical sites. Here are some of the top sights to see in the province:

  • Saif-ul-Malook: scenic lake surrounded by mountains

  • Kaghan Valley: large, scenic valley

  • Mahodand lake: scenic lake for boating and fishing

  • Shandur Pass: major mountain pass known as 'The Roof of the World'

  • Lulusar: group of mountain peaks and a scenic lake

  • Tirich Mir: highest mountain of the Hindu Kush and the highest mountain in the world outside of the Himalayas.

Scenic Views in KP: Kaghan Valley, Mahodand Lake and Saif-ul-Malook


Pashtun food is eaten in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Pashtun cuisine includes a blend of Central, Eastern and South Asian and Middle Eastern cuisines. The cuisine is mostly made up of meat dishes, dairy products, rice, flatbreads, vegetables, nuts, fresh and dried fruits. Here are some examples of traditional Pakhtun dishes:

Veggie friendly:

  • Kichrei: sticky medium grain rice cooked with mung beans and onions, topped with melted qurot sauce. This is mostly eaten during winter.

  • Aushak: vegetable and chive-filled dumplings topped with tomato and yogurt sauce.

  • Bolani: potato/vegetable/lentil stuffed flat bread

  • Bonjan: Eggplant cooked with potatoes and tomatoes

  • Bendei: okra cooked with onions and tomatoes

  • masteh: freshly made yoghurt

  • Naan (Dodai in Pashto): flat bread made in vertical clay ovens

  • Shomleh: drink made by mixing yogurt and water then adding dried mint leaves and a pinch of salt.

  • Peshwari naan: naan stuffed with dried fruits and nuts

Meat dishes:

  • Mantu: meat dumplings

  • Shorwa: soup/stew made from potatoes, beans and meat

  • Chapli kebab: fried flat patty made from minced meat

  • Chopan Kebab: charcoal grilled lamb chops

  • Londei: Spiced lamb or beef jerky cooked with rice. The meat is dried beforehand.

Food of KP: Peshwari naan, Bonjan, Shorwa, bolani, mantu, chapli kebab, naan.

My thoughts

I have thoroughly enjoyed learning about Khyber Pakhtunkhwa especially browsing through it's breathtaking sites! This region has seen a lot, and it breaks my heart what the people have been through over the years (and centuries) due to the strategic location of this region. Nevertheless they are strong and committed to their roots and traditions and I love that they are always willing to extend a helping hand and be hospitable, which is such a beautiful tradition to uphold! I really hope I get to visit one day and experience all the province has to offer!

With this, I'd also like conclude this series on Pakistani regional cuisine. These last few weeks have been eye-opening, heart-wrenching, healing and so enjoyable for me. I know I've just scratched the surface but that is what I needed to do for now, since I knew so little about this beautiful and complex land of my ancestors. I have learnt so much and I hope you have too. This has been a great way for me to get a better understanding of why things are the way they are, it's sparked a desire to visit some of these absolute gems and has given so much inspiration for new recipes to try out from all over the country! I hope you've enjoyed taking this journey with me!

Toro tyaro pase rana razi.

After every darkness, there is light.

Stay tuned for this week's Pakhtun specialty recipe!

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