By Hira Nafees Shah
On a Thursday afternoon in the sweltering June heat, when most Islooites preferred to conserve their energies and beat the heat, a group of 17 brave contestants decided to do exactly the opposite. They stood near burning stoves for hours perfecting their cuisines, until they deemed them ready to be judged in a unique cooking competition.
The Islamabad chapter of the Pakistan-U.S Alumni Network organized the June 19 contest dubbed “Savory versus Sweet.” Mary Sue Milliken, a celebrity chef from the U.S with an experience ranging over decades, graced the event with her presence and was one of the three judges on the occasion.
“I decided to take part in the competition because I enjoy cooking and thought it was a fun way of doing what I love to do,” said Hina Siddiq, a Fulbright alumna and one of the participants who made a Mexican enchilada dish.
The judges scored the 17 dishes based on three categories: taste, presentation and originality. Besides Chef Milliken, Pakistani fusion cooking expert and television personality Chef Shai and Manager Food and Beverages at the U.S Embassy Waqas Anjum (Community College Initiative alumnus) served as the other two judges.
The event organizers placed the sumptuous cuisines on three tables in two adjoining rooms. Most of the multi-colored mouth watering dishes were of the main course, and beckoned the audience to have a taste long before they were served.
Shifa Fatima made two dishes for the contest “Achari Korma’ and ‘Jaleebi Kheer’ and won the first prize in the Savory category for her former meal. The SUSI alumna was full of praise for the event.
“The cooking competition was an amazing experience,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting to win, but I won solely due to the teamwork that my friend and I put into our dish.”
But the real winners at the event were the audience who had the fortune of sampling so many delectable dishes.
IVLP Alumnus Kashif Khan said he had decided to come because he did not want to miss out on the opportunity of eating so many brilliant meals, and really enjoyed the enchiladas. He also outlined the importance of culinary diplomacy.
“I think cooking is an undersold skill in Pakistan and there is a need to glamorize it,” said Khan. “These culinary events can lead to better ties between Pakistan and the U.S, because they promote soft power.”
PUAN Islamabad chapter’s General Secretary Mubashir Ghani Khawaja said the best aspect about the event was how different alumni shared their culture with the American chef. He also asserted that food is a good way of getting an idea about the tastes of different countries.
And Chef Milliken’s trip to Pakistan was all about understanding the Pakistani cuisine. She said judging the cooking competition was quite an experience.
“I am very pleasantly surprised by the quality of food and the creative thought that went into each dish,” she said.
The chef also stressed that currently there is a big interest in Pakistani food in the U.S.
“There is a huge demand for new cuisines and dishes in America right now,” said Milliken. “I think many Pakistani dishes will be loved by the American public especially ‘Biryani’, ‘Qeema’ and ‘Khari Pakora’.”
She touched upon the power of food in building bridges between countries and cultures.
“Food is a universal language and is a basic, fundamental part of every society,” Milliken said. “I really believe that food is a great way to start a dialogue.”
Sarina Zainab, a Fulbright alumnus won the first prize in the sweet category. She said she had participated in the event only to meet the Master Chef cook and found the American judge to be quite affable.
“I loved the explanations that the judges gave about my dishes and I believe food is a good way to have a get together and have a cross cultural exchange,” Zainab said.
And this exchange is probably what Chef Milliken will relish the most when she takes stories about Pakistani food back to the United States.