Cooking Shows Catch On In Pakistan
LIANE HANSEN, host:
The television food show craze is catching on in Pakistan. Cooking shows are proliferating on Urdu and English-speaking channels. While Americans have culinary stars like Rachel Ray, Pakistanis tune in to watch Poppi.
NPR's Julie McCarthy went to see the Karachi-based chef whip up a mouth-watering meal.
Unidentified Man: All right. Rolling and cue.
JULIE MCCARTHY: Cameras trailing Poppi Agha combs the aisles of this upscale grocery store, shopping for the ingredients for the menu she'll feature on her show, "A Taste of Fusion." Poppi credits her rise in Pakistan's culinary constellation to her grandmother's kindly cook, who saw in an eight-year-old tomboy, the makings of a chef. And with some basic ingredients, Poppi followed the instructions to a T.
Ms. POPPI AGHA (Host, "A Taste of Fusion"): Now, I had no idea what I was making. When it came out, I had the perfect creme caramel in front of me.
MCCARTHY: Then her guests mistook the dessert for the family chef's.
Ms. AGHA: And everyone said, "Oh, the (unintelligible) the creme caramel was fantastic. And he said, well, I didn't make it. She did. And I had made that thing that had turned these people's taste buds, you know, on their toes and that talked to me.
MCCARTHY: Poppi's mission now is to broaden Pakistan's palate. To broaden the audience, she'll tape the show at a local mall where banners eight feet high trumpet her appearance, but she won't cook here. With no cooking allowed on the premises, hours before show time, Poppi races home to her own kitchen to rustle up the meal designed to mark the start of mango season.
Ms. AGHA: We're going to start off with some mangoes. Then I'm going to mix the mangoes with a little crab apple. I'm going to slice up the crab apples in thin, lovely, lovely see-through slices.
MCCARTHY: There are dozens of varieties of mangoes in Pakistan. Poppi's making up this new recipe for mango salad, as she goes along.
Ms. AGHA: Oil and then synthetic vinegar. I'm going to put a little soy in it, a little turmeric, some coriander seed.
MCCARTHY: Coriander is a staple spice of Pakistani food, whether seeds, or powder, or leaves. Poppi becomes part chemist, calibrating how to use it.
Ms. AGHA: Coriander seeds in general, they're a hot spice. Coriander leaves are cooling. The chopped coriander that I'll garnish it with will cool everything down. The sweetness in the mango is cut by the chili that I'm going to introduce and the lemon. And at the same time, it's going to sort of secrete all flavors throughout, so you're going to have a very fruity, but a light salad, which is my aim.
MCCARTHY: The aim hits the mark.
Well, that'll wake up your taste buds.
Ms. AGHA: Yeah. What do you think?
MCCARTHY: Well, it's delicious.
Ms. AGHA: There you go.
MCCARTHY: And it's, well, it's a fusion.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MCCARTHY: It's sweet. It's savory. It's hot. It's cool.
Ms. AGHA: Yeah.
MCCARTHY: There's about a million flavors in there.
Ms. AGHA: And they're working.
MCCARTHY: Poppi has created more than 150 recipes. Her mango chicken papillote for this week's show is no exception. Plump chicken breasts smothered in big chunks of garlic, thick slices of mangoes and quartered plum tomatoes is the kind of minimal preparation that she says is key to encouraging new cooks.
Ms. AGHA: This is quick cooking. And I'd rather encourage people to cook. You don't need everything to be tiny. You don't always have the time to do something tiny. I don't have time to do something tiny, I better get back to The Forum and cook.
MCCARTHY: But she knows she can't rush.
Ms. AGHA: Like I keep saying, you can't dictate to the food. The food dictates to you. Patience, patience is key.
MCCARTHY: Back at The Forum mall, before the cameras, the 33-year-old chef projects a friendly but no-nonsense style that seems to attract the public.
Ms. AGHA: Mango chicken en papillote, ready to eat. And all we have left to do is get someone to taste it, tell me what they think and it's time for dessert.
MCCARTHY: Dessert is a cross between a mousse and trifle called Mango Fool is the one thing prepared on set.
Ms. AGHA: And here I have some fabulous whipping cream and I'm just going to pour that in. And that's about one (unintelligible) of whipping cream. In that goes. Look how glorious it looks already. I could just eat it like that. And now for the moment of truth: Will the blender work?
MCCARTHY: Shoppers strolling by are plucked by the show's director to sample the menu on-camera.
Ms. REZWANA HALID(ph): I think I'm in heaven right now.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. HALID: Have you tried it? It's really good.
MCCARTHY: Off-camera, Rezwana Halid says she liked the chicken, but says that cooking shows like this exist because they fill a void.
Ms. HALID: We are an entertainment-starved nation. I mean, the best real entertaining(ph) is to come to this kind of a mall.
MCCARTHY: Miriam Balal(ph) says she's a student of cooking shows like Poppi's.
Ms. MIRIAM BALAL: I love watching cooking shows and I do try it at home for my family, for my kids, for my husband. You really learn from these things. Really learn.
MCCARTHY: But she also says in a society where daily life has been marred by war and terrorism, cooking shows are a healthy form of escape.
Do you feel yourself doing that?
Ms. BALAL: Yes, I do. It really makes me relaxed when I'm in the kitchen. At least for one time, I'm not getting news about the blood and all those things. And busy in cooking and having food for my kids, it makes me happy. Yeah.
MCCARTHY: Chef Poppi says she understands the allure of the kitchen in these times.
Ms. AGHA: You see, it's practical. Cooking is practical. It's something that everybody does in their households. And there may be war going on outside, but you still got to eat. There are people dying up north, but yet we're doing a cooking show down here.
MCCARTHY: It's the duplicity of this world we live in, she says. But we do live in it.
Julie McCarthy, NPR News.
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