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‘Keeping my fingers crossed’


By now, most of you would have seen the clip of Sandeep Pandit, the Indian face in Season 11 of MasterChef. Sandeep, a Kashmiri migrant, hopes to showcase his heritage and the unique spices that the Kashmir region in northern India is known for as those are his favourite spices to work in the kitchen.
But that is not to say his knowledge is limited to just Kashmiri spices. Like most Kashmiri Pandits, his family too were forced to flee the Kashmir region due to militancy and he was just eight-years old when they landed in Bangalore, south of India. “Overnight we were reduced to pretty much nothing from everything,” he rues (more on that below). Growing up in the south of India, he was introduced to another range of spices and food, adding to the versatility of his cooking. Sandeep says that the world’s knowledge of Indian food is limited to curries, whereas in truth, Indian food encompasses the whole gamut of fresh food, fermented food, curries, et al. And it is precisely this range in Indian food that he wants to showcase at MasterChef.
Having always been a fan of this cooking show, which is also widely followed in India, Sandeep’s dream was to take part in it. That became possible when he got his permanent residency last June. He is now keeping his fingers crossed to last the whole journey and, if possible, take the crown home. For now, he is taking one cook at a time. In an exclusive chat with The Indian Weekly, Sandeep talks about his passion for food, and more.

How have you prepared for the show?
This has been my dream for a long, long time. I have been a fan of MasterChef Australia in India itself. I am an IT Project Manager and I came to Australia in 2016 on work permit. Last year when I got my permanent residency (PR) I was eligible to apply and I was fortunate enough to be picked up. I have been cooking since I was nine-years of age, so the practice has been there from childhood itself. I have watched how the show has progressed from my time in India and I had a fair idea. Along the years, the show has really evolved and I have watched them and tried to work on specifics. That’s pretty much how I have prepared.

Curries would definitely be your forte, but are sweets your strengths too? Any training on that?
As you rightly said, Indian cooking traditionally is all about spices. I think I am blessed to have this amalgam of cultures. I am a Kashmiri by birth but my family during migration moved to Bangalore, so I have grown in an environment of spices. The north and the south are different culinary worlds and I can say that spices are my strength. But I knew that getting into MasterChef – my dream for God knows how many years now – one has to have a very strong dessert profile as well. It’s not really my strength but I don’t shy away from baking something. I enjoy it a lot and it’s my peaceful time when I do a cake or a cookie. I reckon my knowledge of spices along with my understanding of the designs of baking should be enough for me to face any dessert challenge.

What other global influences do have in your cooking style and how do you plan to incorporate them?
To be very honest, I have not had that much influence. I really think that the perception of Indian cuisine that exists in the West is curry oriented, that to me is belittling Indian food. We have traditions of cooking on coal, dum (heavy-bottomed pot, preferably a clay pot), incredible flatbreads, fermented foods, etc.. If I am to incorporate Indian techniques for however much long I last in the show, that should be enough. I would be honest in saying I am more for Indian food and I hope through my journey in MasterChef, I would be able to learn more techniques from around the globe.

Do you have issues cooking beef?
Absolutely, given my background. I am a Kashmiri Pandit and eating beef is forbidden, so I am hoping I don’t have to cook it.

If you were to introduce someone to Indian food, what would you cook?
The first thing I would cook is what I did for my audition week. I made rogan josh, the authentic Kashmiri style, tahar yellow rice and radish raita. Very few people know how to cook these in a traditional manner and it is a rare treat in India as well. Not many people, including professional chefs, cook Kashmiri food and it is so unique to Indian cooking. Things that are cooked in Kashmir are downright exotic. We use turnips and different types of radishes too.

How did you feel about food when you moved to Australia?
It was a bit of a cultural shock because being in Bangalore, which is a melting pot where every world food is available; I found it surprising how little people knew about Indian food here. It is definitely something that they like and are interested in but their understanding is limited to a curry and they don’t know the difference of, say, how a curry from Rajasthan is different to a curry from Gujarat, or Kerala from Karnataka. Those nuances or differences are not very subtle, these curries have completely different experiences. Through my journey, I hope I will be able to showcase the subtleties and the nuances of Indian culture.

What was the best advice that you got before entering the show?
From my wife and my parents who told me to know the difference between the way I cook at home and the way I will cook at MasterChef kitchen. ‘You will not have the leisure of time so please start cooking in 60 to 75 mins’ (laughs).

Any chef as a role model?
Gary Mehigan, one of the judges, hands down. He is doing perhaps what Rick Stein was doing few years back, but he is definitely my icon.

How hard was it to be a boy and interested in cooking living in India?
Valid point. When our family was forced to migrate from Srinagar to Bangalore I was just eight. Overnight we were reduced to pretty much nothing from having everything. Both my parents had to work very hard and because of that I and my two sisters had to help around the house. I found my calling in the kitchen. My mom used to go to work at the HMT Watches factory at 7:30 am and come back home late at night. Bangalore being very different to Kashmir in terms of weather, the food would get spoilt during the summers. We couldn’t afford a fridge to preserve food so my mom told us, ‘if you boil the food on stove before you eat it, it will not get spoilt’. Thus I learnt how to boil food, use a stove and help my mom in the kitchen. One evening when she got home from work after an 8-10 hour shift, I made a cup of tea for her. There were tears in her eyes and I felt so good that somebody appreciated what I made, the joy of serving someone is immense and that’s why I liked working in the kitchen. People told me ‘you don’t belong in the kitchen’ and I could have been a chef but my family conditions were such that I couldn’t pursue a job as a chef. I had to do a proper job, for financial reasons. I am happy I didn’t become a chef as I would not have been able to come to Australia and fulfil my MasterChef dreams.

Was getting into MasterChef tough?
It wasn’t easy; there is a whole process that has to be completed before you are reinvited. There is nothing really easy about it but at the same time it is not something so difficult that people can’t get into it. There is a due process to be followed. I am very happy that I followed the process and fortunate enough to impress the judges in the auditions.

Are you confident of winning?
There are spectacular cooks here. I am going to take one cook a day and hopefully go forward with the wisdom and experience gained each day. At the moment I am only interested in working on my next meal.

What are your favourite kitchen tools and spices?
This might sound cliché but my favourite tool is my gas stove. People like ovens, electric gas and other forms of cooking but for me it is fire. I love cooking on stove, I have fire in front of me and that’s my favourite form of cooking. As for spice, it is the Kashmiri red chillies hands down, there is no alternative to it. It is my absolute favourite spice and the world is taking note of it.

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