Cooking away from the comfort of a properly equipped kitchen is a tough job.
Given the lack of usual facilities and services combined with harsh terrain, why would someone want to cook in the wild? That's exactly what we wanted to know when pictures of Ahsan Arshad, a "self-taught adventure cook" started doing the rounds on social media.
When asked about what compelled Ahsan to pursue his dreams, particularly this dream, he shared, “Like in every desi household, it's often the case that whatever's for dinner or lunch, you take it or leave it. Ever since I was a child, I always wanted to eat a variety of different things which I enjoyed so I started trying out new dishes. It started with small items like eggs and sandwiches."
"My mom encouraged me, she never stopped me or disapproved of my cooking. In fact, she was the one who taught me initially. With time and thanks to the internet, I discovered more contemporary recipes and kept trying them.”
The inspiration for Ahsan to finally take the plunge dawned on him when he came across Al Meezan's YouTube cooking channel in which they go into the wild and cook different cuisines. With encouragement from family and friends who tasted his food, Ahsan started his own Youtube vlog and an Instagram account to share his journey with the world.
"You feel closer to nature, your human instincts, survival instincts, how they evolved and that self-reflection is a great feeling. Humans have two basic needs according to me: food and travel. It's almost therapeutic; depressed people are often advised to spend time in nature. And with good food, the effect is doubled."
So what does Ahsan like to cook and what drives him to the mountains?
"I'm mostly known for my burgers. I have a customized grill that I have to carry with me in order to make those.The time duration to make these is lesser than that of other food items, even though it has it's own challenges when you make it in the wild. In general, I like to focus more on fast food as it gets ready quickly. Mac and cheese burgers, classic beef burger, mushroom sauce burger and grilled chicken — you name it, I've made it."
His specialty is an onion ring burger concoction:
"I've also experimented with Italian and Chinese dishes. Some of the desi dishes I've prepared include Balochi raan roast, chicken hang roast and dumpukht which is a dish from KPK."
He reveals the hang roast was a big challenge.
"That take a lot of time; it's a slow cook which takes around 3-4 hours. Even though I try different things, chicken hang roast has to be the hardest thing I have made in the wild."
Like so many of us, the 25-year-old budding chef realised that while he had acquired a degree that was well-suited to the needs of highly competitive job market (he studied computer science), that wasn't where his heart lay.
“While studying, I realised that this isn't my passion and why not make my passion my profession so then I got more serious about adventure cooking; it has made all the difference and made me content. My current goal is to take tourists and thrill-seekers with me on these adventures. I'm in the process of starting my travel service, hiking to different places and cooking in the wild, I don't think anyone does that here in Pakistan. This way, people can come with and enjoy these beautiful landscapes and nature along with live cooking.”
Ahsan ultimately wants to open his own restaurant which we're guessing he's going to be well-equipped for by the end of it; the kitchen heat's got nothing on him when he's been out there cooking in the wild.
It's not so easy, he asserts.
“What I do is very different from working in the kitchen. A kitchen has more facilities and the wild obviously doesn't so you have to work with natural elements. The challenge is to select a suitable place, a dry place from where the fire doesn't spread. Grassy areas are NOT recommended. With the location comes the view, so you have to select a good view. When cooking in the wild, you strike fire using wood only or coal, you have to go looking for wood. The heat, smoke and wind cause problems and it's a bit difficult to handle. All this requires a lot of patience.”
"In the wild you have to craft the environment according to you needs, you learn with time. Sometimes, you get it right. Sometimes, you learn a lesson."
When asked if he's had any mishaps happen, Ahsan laughs and shares, “I went to a place called Jabri near Monal and Margalla hills. I decided to make some food there but was unable to light the fire because of the wind. I decided to use petrol which was a big mistake. The petrol bottle caught fire and a blast occurred and my beard caught on fire!
My friend was there and he helped me so we were all fine. But after that I became much more careful about any fuel to light fire."
Here's to taking the path less travelled and finding the strength to follow your dreams.