January issue 2009

By | Food | Life Style | People | Profile | Published 12 years ago

Tune in to any channel featuring cookery shows that take live calls and you will discover that chefs have become the most revered figures after superheroes. They have a cult following — the kind that would turn even Amitabh Bachchan green with envy.

Newsline interviews five culinary experts who have each developed a huge fan following to get an inkling of what makes them hot with Pakistani foodies.

Hale and Hearty

Chef Zakir is upset that every Tom, Dick and Harry is appearing on cooking shows and professing to be a chef. “You have to receive proper training and go through a whole drill — commis, line cook, first cook, second cook, third cook, etc. — and then appear for a theoretical and practical examination before you are qualified to be a chef. And even then, unless you have gained proper kitchen experience in hotels, you cannot call yourself a chef, just like qualified doctors don’t call themselves doctors until they have done their housejobs. These days, even people with absolutely no clue about cooking have become chefs!”

Having served as a chef in hotels in places like Singapore, Dubai, Botswana, the Caribbean and South Africa, Zakir has 23 years of working experience abroad. He has been sent to all these countries by the Chefs’ Association, of which he is a member, and still has several offers under his belt. He explains: “I have received training in kosher cooking as well, and since there are very few kosher chefs around, we are in great demand, especially since internationally, people are now showing a preference for kosher food.”

Zakir, who appears exclusively on Masala TV, says he has studied a range of cuisines, but finds that the ones he showcases most frequently on TV are Pakistani, Chinese, Thai, continental, Indian and Korean. In his view, the most popular foods in Pakistan are Pakistani barbecue, Indian and Chinese. Fusion cooking, which blends different regional culinary styles, has also fast gained in popularity.

Incidentally, Zakir is not the only person in his family to have adopted cooking as a profession. His father was a chef at the British Overseas Airways Corporation and later at PIA. His brothers and cousins all followed the same line and the third generation is continuing the culinary legacy. Currently, there are 23 chefs in his family, all cooking up a storm in top hotels here and abroad.

The mushrooming of cooking shows has improved the availability of imported ingredients in the market. “There was a time when some herbs and vegetables, like parsley and broccoli, were not available or were very expensive,” says Zakir. “But thanks to all the cookery shows, a demand has been created for all kinds of ingredients and everything is now readily available.”

Interestingly, Zakir feels that it is important to include desserts and oil in our diet, and that health-conscious people should not ban fatty foods from their diets completely. He says healthy eating depends on the way food has been cooked, the number of meals consumed in a day and the kind of activity indulged in right after the meal. He admits he has no qualms about making rich food and states that in no way has its popularity diminished. By the same token, he advises those who avoid eating meat for health reasons not to shun this form of high protein as it is essential for the body.

Amazingly, this well travelled and accomplished chef has simple tastes. Zakir’s favourite food is daal chawal and kharay masala ka qeema, and his own favourite recipe is piyaz pasanda.

Tidbits

Your favourite cookbook?
My own! Actually, I don’t get time to consult cookbooks!
Your favourite restaurant?
Never eat at restaurants — don’t get the time.
Any particular food you want to learn how to cook?
Gujrati food.
Any one ingredient that you use the most and regard as essential for flavouring your dishes?
Ginger and garlic and all kinds of green leaves — coriander, mint, parsley, etc.

Pakistan’s Martha Stewart

Zubeida Tariq is adamant that she should not be referred to as a chef. For her, the term implies that the person has done numerous courses and worked in hotels. In fact, she won’t even call herself a culinary expert. Tariq says she applies gharelu totkas to her cooking and says that most people who appear on TV and teach cooking, like her, are not professional chefs.

Zubeida Tariq, who appears on TV One, Masala TV and Zauq, feels that tastes haven’t changed drastically over the years . Chatpatta food, she says, is as much in demand today as it was decades ago. The one difference is that with changing times, many Pakistanis’ tastes are veering more towards fusion cooking than authentic local cuisine. Ingredients like fresh cream are being added to desi dishes now — something unheard of before — so now we have an exotic dish like malai koftas instead of plain koftas. Along the way, Tariq adds, we have also forgotten the adaab of eating, which used to be an integral part of our culture.

In fact, it was Tariq’s exposure to etiquette and the tradition surrounding the art of cooking and eating that piqued her interest in food. “I grew up looking at food being made from scratch in our house,” says Tariq. “It was never catered from outside. I remember seeing my grandmother use a pestle and mortar to grind the masalas; electronic grinders were never used. I have continued with this age-old tradition in my cooking.” Compared to other cuisines, Tariq feels Pakistani cuisine has a lot of variety to offer and, hence, is still a favourite with most Pakistanis.

After Pakistani cuisine, Chinese is extremely popular here, especially as it has been adapted to suit local tastes. Barbecue is another hot favourite with Pakistanis. Her own favourite Pakistani meal is simple: hand-ground qeema accompanied with khati daal, rice and pappadoms. And her dislikes? “I hate Japanese food,” she says candidly.

Zubeida Tariq is delighted that all kinds of ingredients are now readily available here. She elaborates: “All kinds of masalas are not only available today, they are well packaged. Even a variety of chillies are available in the market: hand-ground, machine-ground, and so on. As for vegetables, we now get a variety that was not available earlier, and their taste is far superior to that of veggies available abroad.”

Interestingly, Tariq is all for healthy eating, but strongly believes that healthy food means food that has been prepared in a hygienic way: washed thoroughly, prepared with clean hands and in a clean kitchen, and hasn’t been over-cooked. She adds, “Food that has not been prepared under hygienic conditions will not be beneficial to you, regardless of whether it is low in calories or cholesterol-free.”

Tariq is opposed to the present trend of churning out cookery programmes by every channel, offering what appears to be tasteless food by half-baked ‘cooks’ who don’t know how to speak or conduct themselves properly. She admits that there is a lot of money to be made in food channels and food-related programmes, and predicts that channels devoted exclusively to food, like Masala and Zauq, are sustainable ventures.

Tidbits

Your favourite cookbook?
I don’t remember names, but I like western cookery books as they are very detailed and follow standard, easy-to-understand measurements — like cups, teaspoons and tablespoons.
Your favourite restaurant?
I don’t eat out much, but enjoy Chinese food, so my favourite is Dynasty. I also like the meals at the Avari Towers’ new restaurant Live Asia.
Any particular food you want to learn how to cook?
The one thing I still haven’t learnt but would love to is baking!
Any one ingredient that you use the most and regard as essential for flavouring your dishes?
Ginger and garlic, especially for meat-based dishes, as there is a smell in all kinds of meats, and a ginger-garlic paste helps to get rid of it.

Jack of all Trades

An actor, choreographer, singer and dancer, Gulzar says that he would most certainly have been a performer if he hadn’t become a chef. Entering the profession by cooking for his own restaurant, Top Taste, Gulzar trained for three years in the culinary arts at Ginza Hotel in Tokyo. After working there as a chef for four years, he spent five years at Fukoka Resort, before moving to Thailand where, apart from Thai cuisine, he also learned kitchen management and restaurant management. “I also did courses in kitchen appliances and food designing, and took up a restaurant consultancy before returning to Pakistan in 2005,” says Gulzar. “Within three months of my arrival, Masala TV roped me in as a chef for their morning show, and later I also did shows for Aaj TV,  TV One and ARY.”

Gulzar says that though he makes all kinds of dishes, the ones that he gets the most requests for are biryani and kunna. He also feels that there is a growing demand for fusion cooking and says he’s in favour of it. “Desi cooking depends heavily on masalas, whereas fusion cooking makes our local food lighter to eat. It is good to be innovative, and, in fact, during our training, we were encouraged not to adhere to recipes, but to research and develop our original recipes and constantly bring changes to them.”

Next to Pakistani food, Gulzar feels Chinese is very popular. But tastes are evolving, unbeknownst to some. “Nowadays, restaurants are also serving Thai, Japanese and Malaysian dishes as Chinese, and people are none the wiser. All kinds of authentic ingredients are available here, so even if one wants to make Peking Duck or roast a turkey, the spices are readily available.”

He too sees the stress on healthy cooking these days. Olive oil and brown rice are now very popular, he says, “People want the desi taste, but with less oil in their food. Hence, quite frequently I use the microwave to cook — I received training for it abroad.” Surprisingly though, Gulzar’s favourite food is “junk food,” and he loves all kinds of fast food.

Unlike the others, Gulzar does not feel that so many cooking shows have a chance of survival and states pragmatically, “Unless there is a professional chef teaching viewers how to cook, or there is some kind of value addition, cooking shows don’t get watched that much.” However, like the other chefs, he too feels that there is great variety in Pakistani food and, understandably, it is not only popular with our own people but equally relished in other countries as well, particularly in the West.

Tidbits

Your favourite cookbook?
A BBC book series on the cuisine of different countries. I think the books are called Worldwide Cuisines.
Your favourite restaurant?
Baan Thai.
Any particular food you want to learn how to cook?
I’ve learnt all I wanted to learn.
Any one ingredient that you use the most and regard as essential for flavouring your dishes?
Garlic.

The Maestro

Shai is yet another chef who has received training abroad and appears exclusively on Masala. A graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education in New York, she has worked for many famous restaurants in the Big Apple, including Rock Center Cafe and California Pizza Kitchen. Explaining how she got into this field, she says, “I have a passion for cooking and used to regularly prepare meals for friends, which were always a great hit. So I thought it would be a good idea to take it up as a profession. I love to visit food markets of the world, eat in good restaurants and never seem to get enough of eating out. In fact, I absolutely love to try everything, including the weirdest kind of foods, which one cannot even imagine in Pakistan.”

Shai says that Pakistanis are very fond of desi food and she gets the most requests for biryani and nihari, but the younger generation also asks her to make all kinds of fast food. She adds, “I also get a lot of requests for chocolate fudge cake, which I have not made as yet! Some diet-conscious people also want to learn about health food, such as salads.”

A fusion chef herself, Shai did her internship in a French/Indian fusion restaurant in New York City, which is probably why she thinks fusion is a great way of introducing new flavours to our country, where people don’t generally like to take risks and try out new dishes. However, she does feel that aside from local food, Pakistanis have acquired a taste for Chinese cuisine and are also quite fond of pizzas. On the other hand, Pakistanis “haven’t really developed an inclination for French food, which is without doubt the most creative and finest cuisine in the world.”

Not inclined to cook with ingredients that are not easy to come by, Shai says, “I try to work with local ingredients, unless I get too many requests for something that requires ingredients not common in Pakistan.” According to the chef, “Improvisation is the key, whether it’s in culinary art or any other art form. My original school recipes are too difficult for most Pakistanis, so I improvise, and deliver what people find easy to make.” However, she does admit that there are “a few dishes that people keep asking for. I would love to see Pakistani food markets full of ingredients such as artichokes, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, scallops, oysters, truffles and herbs like thyme and chives — and dishes using them.”

Shai agrees that the concept of healthy eating has taken off in Pakistan. “Mostly people who are educated, especially professionals, nowadays want healthy food: salads, soup and mostly baked dishes. I myself am very weight-conscious, but I also believe in quality food, calorie counting and keeping track of how many calories are being burnt through the day. It’s about having a healthy lifestyle and not just cutting down on fat and sugar.”

As for her favourite food, Shai confesses, “I am very moody when it comes to food. For me, pasta is comfort food, while French food is adventurous, as one discovers different levels of flavours, textures and finesse in it; it’s luxury food. Pakistani food is ‘anytime’ food that I grew up with. I can also live on bread, butter and cheese, which is my favourite, and, of course, mithai, which I eat often.”

Shai is optimistic that the deluge of food programmes will manage to sustain themselves as Pakistanis love to eat, since there is not much else to do. She says, “The prime source of entertainment is television these days, and people seem to enjoy watching food shows rather than watching news, which is always depressing.”

Tidbits

Your favourite cookbook?
My favourite book is Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain.
Your favourite restaurant?
My favourite restaurant is Daniel Boulud in New York City.
Any particular food you want to learn how to cook?
I would love to learn pastry art/sugar work, etc., which is separate from the culinary arts.
Any one ingredient that you use the most and regard as essential for flavouring your dishes?
Well, I have to say it’s salt, isn’t it?

An Ethnic Touch

Poppy Agha confesses that she has taken no formal courses in cooking. However the Dawn News cooking host has learnt her culinary skills from six different chefs around the world. She proudly calls herself Chef D’ Cuisine. Although she adopted cooking as a profession only two or three years ago, she has been cooking since she was eight. Hailing from a family that boasts “three generations of brilliant cooks,” it was her stay at a boarding school abroad that got her into preparing meals and stirred her passion to life. Today, aside from her television show, she caters professionally and plans to open a restaurant soon.

Using traditional dishes as her inspiration, Poppy Agha always makes up “new menus” for her programmes. However, she finds that among her most sought-after recipes is the chocolate ganache pie. Agha believes pan-Asian fusion cuisine is very popular in Pakistan, despite being different in taste from local cuisine. It’s appeal, she says, stems from the liberal use of chillies in these dishes.

Agha is all for healthy cooking and strongly recommends using less fat in our foods. She cooks predominantly in olive oil or canola, and avoids ghee, unless it’s a dish that just won’t taste as good without it. “Of course, it’s also necessary to eat in moderation and exercise, especially if one wants to eat fun food as opposed to healthy.”

Using a lot of indigenous products in her cooking, Agha believes in “not being too fancy and using whatever is available.” However, she is delighted that more and more shops are beginning to stock ingredients that were previously unavailable locally. But there are quite a few items, like certain types of olives and vinegar, that are still difficult to come by. Another Poppy grouse: most seafood in Pakistan is not of high quality.

She wants cooking shows on TV to be more fun. “Food is something everyone is interested in, whether they are 10 years old or 80, but shows shouldn’t condescend so much to the viewers. Instead of wasting time showing how to chop, they should concentrate on providing alternatives to what the viewers already know.”

Inspired by new recipes every day, Poppy agrees that Pakistan has “one of the most diverse cuisines on the planet. All the provinces have their own specialties, and within each province there are so many ethnic groups with their own cuisines that there is a rich variety of food available here.”

Tidbits

Your favourite cookbook?
Food Writing in the Eighteenth Century by Curnonsky.
Your favourite restaurant?
It used to be Ibla in London, though I don’t know if it is still around.
Any particular food you want to learn how to cook?
There are too many to name, but I would definitely love to cook Mutanjan perfectly.
Any one ingredient that you use the most and regard as essential for flavouring your dishes?
Black pepper.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Karachi. She also works at Hum television.

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