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Adding the desi tarka to MasterChef

Updated May 28, 2014

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  Chef Zakir
Chef Zakir

When I began watching the first episode of Masterchef Pakistan, my first instinct was to recall a humid night in Nazimabad where I had stood in line for the opening of the first ever McDonald’s in my city. There was a similar sense of curious excitement and misplaced nationalism at what was ultimately an expression of global capitalism deciding to visit us.

Masterchef Pakistan is the second global TV franchise to come to our screen after the recent conclusion of season 1 of Pakistan Idol. Along with music and cricket, food is one of the abiding and unifying passions of Pakistan, and so the show generated plenty of excitement and interest.

The show’s opening four episodes were taken up with the whittling down of hundreds of entrants into a final group of 16 contestants. While the odd characters and widespread enthusiasm were both interesting to witness, it was the adulation reserved for Chef Zakir in particular which was the first surprise.

 Auditions for MasterChef Pakistan.
Auditions for MasterChef Pakistan.

The reaction of middle-aged women squealing at his sight made it feel like he was some hybrid of Shahid Afridi and Fawad Khan glazed in chocolate.

Once the final 16 was selected, the show moved into the Masterchef kitchen, and its first sight was testament to how rapidly Pakistan’s media and television industry have developed in a decade or so.

 The final 16
The final 16

The kitchen, the set and the camera angles were all in sync with the standards set by the global versions of the show, and while that doesn’t say much for originality; it is at least a display of how far production standards have come.

The original 16-member cast had an even mix of males and females, but what was interesting was that none of them were professional chefs – a significant difference from international Masterchef contestants. That lack of experience began to show with the very first challenges, as the contestants struggled to cope with the time they had. Moreover, it was a clear indication that the contestants were all from what we term ‘upper-middle class’ and pursued cooking as a hobby and a passion, but not necessarily a profession.

The initial episodes also started raising certain questions about what this show was going to be about – what would be considered as examples of Masterchef abilities in a Pakistani context? Would the contestants be expected to be good at making international cuisines, or would mastery of Pakistani dishes give an edge?

Early on, it seemed that knowledge of fairly regular western dishes conferred a huge advantage over desi dishes. This was because the judges valued presentation as much as taste, and this was where desi dishes were suffering.

While the influx of foreign food channels and restaurants has meant that most people, for example, know how to plate a Thai curry with steam rice quite well – however, there are little to no precedents for serving desi dishes in a gourmet style.

Perhaps the most telling example of this was in one of the earliest rounds where several people with variations of “rice and chicken” sailed through, but Aneela the housewife from Faisalabad ran into trouble. Her appetising dish of Chilghoza Kebabs had been served on a mound of boiled cubes of potatoes and carrots, and it felt as if she had no other idea of how to present her food. At this point, I felt that the show was going to be rough on those who knew traditional Pakistani dishes.

Yet, it also became clear that the judges were not looking for purely gourmet styles. Several contestants who made minimalist plates and dishes were asked questions like “Yeh aap ne plate to sahih se bhari hi nahi hai!” Clearly, there was an attempt to merge a western gourmet sense of aesthetics in the voluptuous character of desi cuisine.

However, the last two episodes (as of this week) have really brought the show to life. On Saturday’s episode, the first contestant to be eliminated was revealed, as the teenager Ali Shah bid farewell. Despite being an intriguing character, he was clearly out of his depth and it showed in his cooking. The episode then had a Biryani challenge, and all my anxieties about desi dishes losing out to western ones were laid to rest.

The challenge saw many of the male chefs really come under pressure, and it ended with a bottom five which included several good cooks. Contestants like Omer and Azam had looked more comfortable making western dishes, but their decisions to create coconut-infused deconstructed biryanis backfired spectacularly. In contrast, Aneela shot from the bottom three to the top three as she found her bearings at last.

Sunday then saw the elimination episode, and once again there was a fun twist as the contestants were asked to cook vegetarian thalis. While Pakistanis definitely know how to do veggies, they always treat such dishes like Indian fast bowlers – not given any prominence or respect. The final dishes were quite decent, but they seemed to have really stretched the contestants. In the end Adnan, who was probably the weakest chef in the group, was asked to leave.

Overall, the show has really hit its stride now as there seems to be a better idea of what kind of direction it will be taking. The contestants still haven’t become characters we are engaged in as yet, but I would imagine that to change, especially since many seem quite prone to tears and melodrama.

At the moment, Madiha looks to be the strongest contestant. Her cooking has been quite fearless, as she won two consecutive rounds with remarkable fusions – a dessert made of crab meat and a biryani with fruits. Her strongest challengers are the smouldering, pouting Rayyan who consistently makes the most skilled and well-presented dishes, but whose desi cooking is a weak point. Another dark horse is Ammara, who has won a round as well and seems best at making dishes which standout without being too risky.

 Madiha, Rayyan and Ammara
Madiha, Rayyan and Ammara

In terms of the production, there are still some teething problems. There seem to be different cameras used for different shots leading to significant variations in colours and lighting. There are also not enough behind-the-scenes interviews to fill up the time, and the editing is not very crisp. The judges are also not very charismatic and can appear over-eager, with the exception of Chef Zakir. He has already emerged as the star of the show, with his presence as well as caustic one-liners both becoming quite memorable.

Overall, in the first few episodes of its debut season, Masterchef Pakistan has still not emerged as a fully polished product.

However, the unbridled passion with which our country loves and thinks about food means that there is a lot to this show that will make many of us continue to want to watch it.


- Photographs courtesy of MasterChef Pakistan