Ever thought how a paan macaron would taste like? Or a sheer khurma panna cotta? Or a chocolate-filled gulab jaman? Sounds bizarre, right? Well, a home-based chef and culinary instructor in Lahore has not only conceived such ideas, and many more like these, but also gone ahead and executed them.

Chef Sidra Shahid recently posted a few fascinating pictures of one of her most recent creations, a chum-chum panna cotta, on an online food group. And as is the case with such forums, there were varied responses, from confusion to applause to outright rejection of a beloved traditional sweetmeat. However, she takes it in her stride. After all, running a food business, especially one that offers modern, quirky fusion of desi desserts, was bound to be risky.

So when and how did she even come up with the idea of such a business? “The inspiration behind changing desi cuisine and taking it to the next level came from my foreign travels, especially Europe and UAE, where Pakistani food wasn’t readily available and everybody associated South Asian food with India. Even in a place like Dubai, there are so many Michelin star Indian chefs. And then I had been watching Masterchef Australia since its first season, which inspired me the most to transform and modernise our desserts,” Sidra tells Dawn at her residence where she operates her business and conducts cooking classes from.

Cooking since 10-12 years of age, she credits Masterchef as being her “first culinary school” that inculcated the interest in her and made her realise what her true calling was. After completing pre-engineering and then business degrees, when she wanted to go abroad to train in culinary skills, she wasn’t allowed to. It was only after marriage and travelling to Europe where she took a few classes from Italian home chefs that she returned and started a small business with basic Italian and French dishes, seven years ago.

Besides that, due to a lack of awareness, as she claims, she also thought of teaching such dishes to educate people about European cuisine. Now, Sidra runs both her classes and business through her instagram pages @CookingClasses101 and @ChefBehindTheSpecs.

But it was only five years ago that she made her first fusion dessert – a chocolate-filled gulab jaman, inspired by the molten lava cake. “After receiving an amazing response, I started picking our desserts, and made a list of those I could play with and that had the potential to be modernised through French and other new techniques like our mithai, gajar ka halwa, sheer khurma etc. When it comes to desserts, it’s like a chemistry practical; you have to be precise with measurements. I also get to show my creativity, and can also break some rules, as there’s not much room to play with in savoury.”

The pastry chef explains that the process behind transforming a local dessert first entails its anatomy, dissecting all the ingredients that go into it and then researching how those components could play together to form and shape an all-new modern dessert, retaining the original taste.

“My chum-chum creation has a panna cotta that has a mellow mithai taste, but when combined with white chocolate coconut mousse, coconut crème anglaise and cardamom Chantilly, it gives a burst of flavours as if one’s eating a chum-chum. The idea is to taste every element together to bring that traditional feel; that’s the beauty of modern desserts. I want to evoke nostalgia, yet present something fresh and unique. Senses play an important role in tasting,” she explains.

Her portfolio of adventurous, eccentric, eye-popping desserts includes a Pistachio Kheer Tart made up of kheer crème diplomat (whipped cream and custard), pistachio short crust, pistachio praline and pistachio brittle. And only when all of these elements are popped into the mouth together will it taste like a traditional rice kheer. Then there’s Kheer Crème Brulee that isn’t baked as a traditional brulee but slow cook on stove; Motichoor Laddoo Rabri Parfait that comprises a modern take on the rabri, cream, laddoo crumble and saffron cream cheese mousse; Masala Chai Tiramisu inspired by the classic and popular chai-biscuit concept containing tea biscuits, mascarpone cheese, tea and assorted masalas; the Ras Malai Tres Leches; Gajar ka Halwa Cheesecake; Kesar Badam Rabri Macarons and many more.

However, these distinctive ideas did face their share of backlash and judgement from the ‘foodies’ of Lahore. “People make fun by just looking at the picture let alone tasting it. A lot of time is spent on R&D about how a recipe is going to work. There’s a lot of taste and trial to make sure a dessert turns out exactly the way I want it to. So, the backlash has been consistent, especially in case of the paan macarons,” she laughs.

Through her unusual dessert combinations, Sidra aims to make fusion acceptable, pretty much relying on local products, except chocolate.

“It’s always the technique that matters, such as cold and hot infusion. I use 95pc local products to ensure consistency. The next desserts I’m working on are transforming doodh jalebi and chilli milli,” she says.

Published in Dawn, August 30th, 2022

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