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Instep, March 8 2010

Imagine this: your taste buds are happily enjoying the sights and sounds of BBC food. You spend your days salivating over the TV set and your evenings wishing your husband cooked like Gary Rhodes, Rick Stein or the ultimate Naked Chef, Jamie Oliver. Forget cooking like Jamie, you wish you were married to him and living the ultimate dream life on River Cottage (instead of Hugh Fearnley, no offense). The men replace their Pamela Anderson fantasies with Nigella Lawson fantasies…Nigella, raiding her refrigerator at midnight, dressed in nothing but her satin robe. Who gives a toss about chocolate; these master chefs become your ultimate guilty pleasure…such was the power of BBC Food.

Unfortunately all good things must come to an end and like a rude shock, BBC Food got bumped from cable networks. The replacement: desi food channels, programs and chefs, many of whom could push a starving man to death over dinner. I don’t mean to be negative. It’s great that food shows in Pakistan have grown with the same frequency as news channels, talk shows, music channels, fashion programs and got just an enthusiastic response from viewers. All of a sudden, anyone who wasn’t a designer (and believe me when I say there were many of those) became a chef. No, they weren’t chefs. They were master chefs. John Torode and Gregg Wallace from the original series may take this moment to shiver in their pants.

But what happened? Oh, the food hit the ceiling!

Local cookery shows have become the equivalent of local talk shows. They are programmed with minimum resources, lackluster and inexperienced hosts and unappealing sets. A far cry from BBC Food, most of these shows are not even palatable, yet they are pushed down our throats on a regular dose, all day long.

The sizzle of butter on a hot pan has been replaced by the splutter of oil in a karahi (usually sponsored oil), the crunch of garden fresh organic greens have been eaten out by wilted veggies and the overall fashionable take on designer food has been butchered along with our fragile taste buds.

To be specific, with the exception of a handful of professional chefs on local TV – Chef Zakir, Chef Gulzar (who is inspired by Ainsley Harriott in demenour), Zubaida Tariq and Rahat – most of the rest are bored housewives (and house-husbands) taking their very basic culinary skills beyond their realm. The fact that many professional chefs on BBC Food actually owned and operated successful chains of restaurants, many of them decorated by the coveted Michelin Stars, added to their credibility. What leg do our domestic gods and goddesses have to stand upon?

A show that begins with the wrong chef then rolls down into a culinary abyss. And there’s so much that is wrong with what we see on TV. Why, I need to ask, are desi food shows so excruciatingly slow? Have they not been exposed to the concept of preparation? It’s as if the host’s personal kitchen has been transported to the set without the producer making any investment on professionalizing it. We have to sit through the trauma of a woman painfully slice through a soft tomato, to then toss it into an unappetizing porridge of bubbling ingredients.

And why are the sets so ugly? Remember Delia Smith’s personal kitchen with the magnificent sprawling backyard it looked out into? Even Jamie Oliver, who cooked in his little apartment, had a place that invited not repulsed. Rick Stein traveled through Europe’s magnificent countryside in search of the best seafood and Gary Rhodes had so much style that his checkered trousers and spiked hair found an entire fan following. And there’s always something about the shimmer of clean copper pots and pans, well packed pantries and neatly laid out tables that has one’s tum go yum.

Here we have sets that are usually sponsored. Most of them are an ugly mess. Then we have hosts who second the concept of being an ugly mess. Sure, Two Fat Ladies and The Hairy Bikers weren’t exactly easy on the eyes but their concepts were so original that one easily overlooked their aesthetic shortcomings. Here in Pakistan, women on cooking shows have taken ‘unstylish’ and ‘hairy’ to a new level. That most of them are sloppy is one thing, but where in the world do professional chefs cook with their long hair open, their chiffon sleeves flowing (possibly into gravy) and their nails painted a dark shade of maroon? It’s a kitchen nightmare, not say a safety hazard.

The nightmare doesn’t end there. I won’t even touch upon the recipes because frankly I have never been encouraged to try any out. But after watching a chef mixing and baking and then decorating a chocolate cake, one does have the slightest curiosity to see it getting cut and eaten. But not many people eat on desi food shows. The food probably tastes as bad as it looks. Need I say more? Yes, I could go on and on but I need to end on a positive note. So…watching most of the local cookery shows would be the ideal motivation one needs to get on a diet. There’s a silver lining after all!


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