'Masterchef Australia' Inspired Me to Discover My Culinary Roots
The 12th season of Masterchef Australia has come to an end.
Early in the lockdown, faced with fear and uncertainty about a dangerous virus, I found comfort in my kitchen. I began channelling all my anxieties into cooking and baking. One of the first things I made was litti-chokha, possibly the most famous food of my people. It’s my comfort food. For those who have never had it, litti is a ball of whole-wheat dough heartily stuffed with sattu (roasted gram flour) that’s seasoned with pickle masala and chillies, while chokha is a creamy mash of potatoes, brinjal or both. And, you’ve got to have hot ghee to soak every bite of litti.
Later that day, when I told my mother about my maiden attempt at making litti-chokha, she got emotional. This was the first time I had cooked a full meal, on my own, ever.
Growing up, my mother always pestered me to watch and help her as she cooked elaborate meals for parties or simple khichdi and pakodas for Saturday afternoon lunch.
“Learn,” she’d say, “You’ll have to do this for your family someday". But I had no interest. I’d watch for a few minutes before disappearing into my room and coming out only once the heady aroma of whatever she was cooking had me drooling. My mom made the best of dishes but I had no interest in learning how they were made. Cooking, for me, was a sign of domesticity, drudgery and repression. As a teen, I was convinced that I’d be married off the day I learnt how to make round, soft rotis.
Living on my own in Mumbai meant a steady diet of takeaways and vada pav. And when I eventually did get married, it was to someone who’s an ace in the kitchen. Besides, we had a cook who’d come in every morning to make regular meals. My relationship with food started with deciding what needed to be cooked and ended with eating — what happened in between those two stages were never really my concern. There was no interest in understanding flavours and textures, the importance of eating local and seasonal or even the joy of feeding others.
Something happened in 2012 that changed my life forever. I watched an episode of Masterchef Australia (Season 4) where a contestant made Summer Pudding with Caramel Ripple Ice Cream.
In a move that was unrecognisable to me, I googled the recipe for that Summer Pudding. It was a simple one that seemed do-able. So, one weekend I made a list of the ingredients – bread, frozen berries and honey. After a quick assemble, the berries and bread spent the night in the fridge getting to know each other. The next day, this combination of sweet syrup, sharp fruit and soaked pudding, with just the perfect amount of wobble, was devoured by a very close group of friends. And, they wouldn’t stop singing odes of joy.
In the years since, as Masterchef Australia’s contestants churned out one Michelin-star-restaurant-worthy dish after another, my food repertoire also grew. I’ve graduated from basic cookies and brownies to four-braid Challahs and Eggs Florentine Pizza. It was on the show that I first heard of cooking methods like 'sous vide' or 'en papillote'; learnt the importance of cutting vegetables right and trusting my own palate. Even the term ‘plating up’ entered my lexicon and I found myself heaping a forkful of spaghetti while gently twisting the plate with the other hand to get a compact mound of pasta.
The more I learnt about food, the more adventurous I became as an eater.
As the focus on the show shifted to hero-ing indigenous ingredients like Kangaroo or minimising wastage which meant that shrimp roe was used to intensify the flavour in a broth, my reaction to ‘strange foods’ (read: snake soup in Hong Kong, barbecued frog and fertilised duck egg in Vietnam or black pudding in Dublin) went from ‘ewww’ to ‘I’ll have a bite’.
My knowledge, though, of Indian food continued to be dismal. And, then the lockdown happened. As was expected my husband took up the bulk of kitchen duties. From someone who cooked once in a while, he became responsible for our three square meals. All the fancy cooking quickly went out of the window and rice, dal and vegetables or meat became our staple. On the days that he needed comfort food, he’d make his childhood favourites like Doh Nei Iong (pork with black sesame) or Doh Sdieh (fried pork). That’s when I realized that an integral part of being self-sufficient in culinary terms always meant the need to go back to my roots.
Masterchef Australia’s 12th season, with it’s all-new judging panel and contestants from previous season who were ‘Back to Win’, was quite a departure from previous seasons. What hasn’t changed though is the emphasis on ‘being true to yourself on a plate’. As a nod to his Chinese-Mauritian background, Brendan Pang made wontons that he learnt from his grandmother, while Poh Ling Yeow described her nasi lemak with otak-otak as ‘my childhood on a plate’. Khanh Ong sharing on his Instagram a photo of his Memories Mystery Box Challenge dish chao ga dau chao quay (Chicken Congee) wrote, "This dish reminds me of home, my childhood and my family.”
While the season has ended, my journey with learning the intricacies and techniques of Bhojpuri food has just started. This season of Masterchef Australia might have been a source of much-needed escapism but for me, it was also a much-needed focus towards my roots. Ghughni, panchphoran, kohra, thekua and maal pua – I continue to learn aspects of my culture through food. And, maybe one day I’ll make litti-chokha for my mother.
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