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First person: Eat, pray and… love your chef

June 22, 2014

Irish playwright and founder of the London School of Economics, George Bernard Shaw, hit the nail on the head when he said: “There is no sincerer love than the love of food.” As Pakistanis, food is our national pastime. It is the one thing that unites us as a country — other than cricket. No one understands that better than the chefs in this country.

Mohammad Zakir Quraishi or Chef Zakir as he’s known in Pakistan is a man so intensely devoted to his craft that, according to him, he sacrificed spending time with his friends, and often his family, or engaging in other recreational pursuits throughout his life just so he could perfect his art. “I don’t like playing any games or sports,” he said. “I don’t go out and socialise. I don’t have an interest in watching movies or listening to music or anything else… I just know how to cook. Food is my life.”

His love for food led him to spend many years travelling around the world, immersing himself in the culture of different countries and discovering the gastronomic varieties and tastes they had to offer and learning how to recreate them. “I would live with them,” stressed Chef Zakir. “I wouldn’t go and see and learn a recipe and come back. I would spend a long stretch of time living in a certain place and learning the intricacies of their food and taste.” His favourite region appears to the continent of Africa. He’s travelled to Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana to name a few countries from the region, and happily relates gastronomic anecdotes from there.

While in Botswana, Chef Zakir worked in the kitchen of several restaurants and hotels in the two years he spent in the capital, Gaborone. He even helped launch an Indian restaurant by the name of Mughulya. “The food they eat is very much like ours. The difference is that they don’t use the spices we do. They use raw vegetables and meat to get the extra flavour in their food. And they cook by using the fat of animals. They don’t add oil, butter or ghee to their food.

They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. That adage couldn’t be better suited to Pakistan’s Chef Zakir whose love for food has led him on numerous journeys far, far away from home… only to return armed with the flavours of the world

“There is this beautiful way in which they cook food in the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean,” related the chef excitedly. “They marinate raw meat overnight and the next day cover it with dough and place it inside burning coal to cook. And they cook it to a point that that dough on the outside is completely burnt. Then they place that on the side and whenever a customer arrives, they hand it to them in a plate.” The customer then takes a heavy rod-like utensil and taps the burnt layer of dough and it comes off, according to the chef, “like a pappar,” revealing the well-cooked, tender and juicy meat inside.

“In the international market they know me as Chef Mohammad because it was too difficult for them to pronounce Zakir right,” he said, “and they would often refer to me as Zak, which I wasn’t comfortable with. I would rather they pronounce my name correctly and Mohammad was something they could easily pronounce. So I go as Chef Mohammad whenever I travel outside Pakistan.”

He returned to Pakistan sometime in 2000 and began working in developing recipes and tastes for local hotels and launching several restaurants. Soon after his arrival, a friend from a local television network told him they needed a chef for a food programme. “He said he was a big fan of how I cooked prawns,” he related. “I went and did one show and the head of the network really liked the way I conducted it, especially as a professional chef, and he offered me a permanent spot. The first time I ever came on television screens was for the Indus TV network. I later moved on to ARY and then Hum TV.” He moved abroad for a brief period and upon his return, Hum TV asked him to join their network again on a newly launched food channel that had quickly caught the fancy of Pakistani audiences around the country, Masala TV. He consented and remained with the channel for around seven years. Chef Zakir currently hosts a cooking show in the mornings for Dawn News.

He is also a judge on the Pakistani version of the global television show MasterChef, an honour he considers a testament to how far he’s come as a chef. Speaking about the talent he’s seen in Pakistan so far, he says that at times participants on MasterChef Pakistan would produce food so beautifully refined and unique in taste that it would make the judges wonder what possible ingredients went into creating it.

One of the things MasterChef Pakistan and other cooking shows has done, in the chef’s opinion, is that it has made Pakistani audiences more aware of the sheer variety of foods out there, and has encouraged them to take up cooking. “It warms my heart to see this new-found interest in food. Now Pakistani audiences are familiar with basil, and the difference between different kinds of cheese and their use. They know how to get exotic ingredients because they’re being stocked at markets as well.”

With all this, does he miss cooking in a ‘real’ kitchen? “In my personal experience, once you’ve been a part of a certain profession, even if you move away from it you can’t really get it out of your system because by then it’s in your blood. So whenever I wasn’t in the studio, I would cook at home. My son has a restaurant; I would go there and stand in the kitchen. He would ask me not to. But I can’t help myself. This is my interest, my passion, my junoon… so I will follow it wherever it takes me.”

Chef Zakir decided very early on in his career that he wanted to aim for the stars. He wasn’t content with just having passable skills; he wanted to be the best. “My father was an incredible cook,” he related. “I would see the respect and attention he got from people for his skill and even as a child, I knew that I wanted that — more than that, in fact.”

Food is a family obsession, so to speak. Despite having sampled some of the best foods from around the world, Chef Zakir personally prefers the taste of his wife’s cooking. Two of his daughters take their passion for food from their father and are constantly developing recipes and experimenting at home. “We’re often the victims of their experiments,” laughed the chef. “They will sometimes wake me up from my nap just to get some feedback or insight into something they have made.” Needless to say, the love of good food and fine dining is what brings this family together.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, June 22nd, 2014