Not ‘shai-ing’ away from her passion

Chef Shai talks about role of television in creating awareness about quality cooking, why Pakistani food stands out.

Saadia Qamar August 15, 2014


Shai was just a small-town girl before she came to be known as Chef Shai. The smell of fresh fruits in the market and the sweet water in Quetta provided just the right atmosphere for a girl looking forward to a more tasteful future. So, she went on to Karachi to pursue a Master’s degree in Plant Sciences and had an epiphany.

“While living in a girls’ hostel, I used to cook my own food after I discovered strange non-food items on my plate on different occasions,” Shai tells The Express Tribune laughingly. Since then, she hasn’t looked back and has become one of Pakistan’s most celebrated chefs. Her recent achievement was to work under celebrity chef Mary Sue Milliken (winner of Top Chef Masters). “It was amazing to create fusion food by combining Pakistani spices with American techniques and flavours,” she says.

Regularly appearing on television as an expert chef and working as a culinary consultant for multinational companies, Shai feels there are many ways in which Pakistani food stands out. But essentially, it’s a game of using different proportions of a limited range of spices.

“Pakistan has some great authentic dishes such as pulao, biryani, koftay, nihari, haleem and karahi. We use similar spices for all these dishes, but in different proportions, so they taste different,” she comments. “But in the rest of the world, there are people from different nationalities living together, so the options of ingredients are a lot more.”

Shai considers this as part of a bigger problem that the Pakistani society is faced with — hesitation to experiment and take risks with available options. This could be due to a limited budget and exposure. “It’s difficult to find quality ingredients in Pakistan. If I need to make a cheese cake or mud pie, it would be a challenge to find the right kind of cheese and good cooking chocolate unless imported quality chocolate is used, which is not always available,” says Shai.

TV channels running food shows and competitions have played a key role in creating awareness about the art of cooking and popularising cooking as a reputable profession. Among these shows, Master Chef Pakistan certainly stood out, making words such as ‘cooking’ and ‘cooks’ trend in the country. Shai was featured in the show as a guest chef and felt that the talent was amazing, but some really important elements of cooking were missed on the show.

“I did not see a lot of baking and contestants did not play with all the ingredients that were available in the pantry such as mussels, oysters, crabs, caviar and truffles,” she says. “But participants’ putting their heart and soul into cooking was worth watching.”

Apart from cooking, Shai is an avid music listener and singer and has acted on both TV and stage. She has even worked as a faculty member at the National Academy of Performing Arts. But what she is yet to accomplish is her biggest dream — owning her own restaurant.

“I always wanted to open a good fine dining place, but running a restaurant is a full-time job, which I cannot afford right now as not only am I working on television, but also developing recipes for multinational companies. This hardly leaves me any time to think about my own restaurant,” she says.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 16th, 2014.

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