Saliha, Masterchef & Pakistani Food

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Earlier in May, British Pakistani doctor Saliha Mahmood-Ahmed was crowned Masterchef UK for 2017. She faced stiff competition from Giovana Ryan’s eclectic Italian and French inspired menu and Steve Kielty’s modern twist on British classics. But with three traditionally inspired dishes that were a treat for all senses, Saliha impressed judges John Torode and Greg Wallace and walked away with the prestigious title.

Her food was praised for its East meets West flair and entirely original palate. She was able to combine modern cookery techniques with age old Pakistani flavours in a way that produced modern food which still reverberated with tradition.

Apart from the obvious triumph of having Pakistan’s culinary culture celebrated on one of the world’s biggest stages as far as food-TV is concerned, I feel that Saliha’s unique take on dishes that pay homage to the classics while embracing modernity has wider connotations for Pakistani cuisine as a whole.

How unique is Pakistani food?

I have always felt that Pakistani food is quite special. Too often has it been lumped under the South Asian umbrella, sometimes even accused of being no different from the cuisine of our neighbours. In the most favourable light, someone might claim that Indian food specializes in vegetarian dishes, while Pakistani food centres around and is good at meat.

But I’m going to argue that all of these descriptions are too simplistic.

Because of our history, culture and geographic location our food encompasses a unique blend of South Asian flavours coupled with those from East Asia and the Middle East. And while the typical roadside Biryani and Nihari is well loved, it certainly isn’t the extent of local food.

Also, Pakistan combines four culturally diverse provinces each specializing in their own unique cuisine. Hence describing it as an offshoot of Indian food rather than a combination of cuisines and flavours is not only upsetting, it is incorrect.

Yet despite the complexity of Pakistani cuisine and the ever persistent marriage of food and television, few mainstream cookery shows have tried to reinvent the perception of local fare. Which is precisely why Saliha’s victory can become a much needed catalyst.

Masterchef, the Global Phenomenon 

Although it originated in the UK, the Masterchef brand has branched off globally with countries like Australia, America, Italy, India and yes Pakistan having successfully launched their own versions. But every Masterchef version has its own niche.

The Australian version for example has always been more about mentorship, grooming the contestants and setting them up to enter the industry.

The American version on the other hand panders much more to the high-decibel melodrama of reality television with rivalries, tears and of course Gordon Ramsey in tow.

The Pakistani version, as it has released just the first season to date, focused on bringing the franchise home and ensuring that the format was adapted to local audiences.

In contrast with the others, the UK version continues to be subdued, hardly resembling modern game or reality shows. The focus for Masterchef UK always seems to be reinvention. They always try to question what food is, and whether this should be altered. They encourage experimentation, reimagining ‘classics’ and the creation of dishes that challenge our perception of food as a whole.

Judges John Torode and Greg Wallace
Judges John Torode and Greg Wallace

Given this description, it isn’t surprising that Saliha Mahmood-Ahmed floored the competition. Her take on Pakistani food kept the flavours and played around with everything. She incorporated techniques from other cuisines (like flavouring a panna cotta with saffron and cardamom) modern methods (a sous-vide duck breast served with duck skin that had been crisped up separately) and identifying the genius of the simplest dishes (serving a humble shami kebab in the final) she challenged expectations and presented the judges with something exceptional. It wasn’t surprising that the usually jovial Greg Wallace was nearly dumbfounded, and reduced to a, “how extraordinary.”

Dr. Saliha’s Pakistan

And it wouldn’t be fair to mention modern gastronomy and not acknowledge a movement slowly gaining traction in Pakistan itself. Walk around Zam Zama or DHA in Karachi and you’ll come across cafes with fresh concepts and a panache for experimenting. Last summer I was treated to liquid nitrogen ice-cream, burgers made from scratch (everything including the buns were made in-house) and fantasy themed cafes. Pakistan’s food scene is definitely bolder and more diverse than it has ever been.

Perhaps the one thing we aren’t experimenting with though is local cuisine. We don’t want to deconstruct a Biryani. Or elevate home cooking to the professional level.

But Saliha was unafraid to question the classics. As a starter, she served a venison shami kebab with chana daal and a kachumber salad. All of these are staples in homes across Pakistan. She herself cited that the dish was inspired by memories of her grandmother’s shami kebabs, which were made in bulk and frozen ready to be fried when guests arrived. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? But because of their simplicity and commonplace nature we often overlook their technical qualities. John Torode for example pointed out that the kebab reminded him of French pate, but much lighter. To those who are unfamiliar with it, Pakistan’s food and its flavours are exciting and unique.

Perhaps what we need to do then is re-examine our food as non-Pakistanis see it. Perhaps what we need to do is adopt modern methods but stick to traditional flavours.

Like the 2017 Masterchef champion, perhaps what we need to do is use new techniques to enhance what already is a pretty special food culture.

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