A British doctor of Pakistani origin, Saliha Ahmed, has won the 2017 edition of MasterChef UK, overcoming the challenge put up by 64 amateur cooks who were competing with her. In the popular show’s finale, Ahmed trumped the efforts of music teacher Giovanna Ryan and DJ Steve Kielty, relying on her Pakistani culinary heritage to be crowned champion, as a record six million viewers saw her cook her way to glory.
The judges, John Torode and Gregg Wallace, were bowled over by Saliha Ahmed’s dishes, which were a fine combination of traditional South Asian flavours and modern cooking techniques. Wallace described her cooking as “East meets West” and “simply stunning – beautiful art on a plate”.
Torode, on the other hand, said: “She’s walked in here and taken her food culture apart and put it back together in a modern and very exciting way.”
Ahmed’s winning three-course menu in the finale was a tribute to her Pakistani-Kashmiri heritage. What was on display was a very obvious case of inspiration from her roots as the shami kabab with coriander chutney, the chana dal and kachumbar salad – an acknowledgement of the memory of her grandmother’s Pakistani home – and a Kashmiri style sous-vide duck breast spiced with walnuts, coriander, dried barberries and a cherry sauce simply stunned the judges. She followed this up with saffron rosewater and cardamom panna cotta served with a deconstructed baklava and zafraan as dessert.
Saliha Ahmed, a gastroenterologist at the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), has been cooking since she was 12, and was quick to recognise the contribution of her Pakistani heritage and family background towards her win.
“I’m from a big Pakistani family and we use food as a way of bringing everyone together,” Ahmed told BBC. “I had very passionate grandmothers who cooked traditional Pakistani food and my mum is also an excellent cook. We love to feed people — it runs in our genes.”
Geo News reports that Ahmed was born to Pakistani parents, Tariq Mahmood and Amina Khatoon in the town of Watford near London. Ahmed’s grandparents, originally from Srinagar in Jammu and Kashmir, moved to Lahore during Partition. She has extended family living in Rawalpindi and Lahore.
“In our household, cooking has always been like a craze. Kashmiri families are known for celebrating what they cook and eat,” she said. “My parents are Kashmiris and my mother-in-law is also a Kashmiri and she is a brilliant cook; in fact she is the one who taught me how to cook the shami kabab recipe which I used for the finals.”
Her journey through MasterChef UK 2017 illustrates the influence Pakistani food has had on her cooking as she wowed the judges with kachoris, samosas, almond and milk vermicelli, and Banarasi cauliflower curry and cauliflower paratha.
The winner of MasterChef UK 2017 was effusive in her praise for her husband Usman, who encouraged her to participate in the show, and filled out its application form on her behalf without telling her.
“He saw talent in me and believed in me,” she said.
BBC reports that as a mother of a two-year-old and having an exacting work schedule at the NHS, taking part in MasterChef UK didn’t exactly turn out to be a walk in the park for Ahmed. The 29-year-old recounts that over a period of a number of months, she had to follow 13-hour shifts at work with cooking late into the night, sacrificing annual leaves for filming and swapping on-call duties with colleagues to ensure she could take part in the show.
But the entire experience has clearly been rewarding for her. In her interview with Geo News, Saliha Ahmed revealed that ever since her victory in the show’s finale, she has been overwhelmed by the response from people in Pakistan, who have congratulated in her huge numbers.
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“I was overwhelmed by the positive feedback … It’s impossible to describe in words the happiness I have felt.”
Contrary to popular perception, however, the winner of MasterChef UK 2017 has no plans of giving up her medical profession and taking on a full-time career in the culinary arts.
“I will not ever give up my profession,” she said emphatically. “I do want to write cookery books and maybe do TV shows on cooking on the side but medicine is my passion.” said Saliha Ahmed winner of MasterChef UK 2017.